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Origin of Silent Letters

Page history last edited by Alex Backer, Ph.D. 7 years, 8 months ago

Why do many languages have silent letters of symbols? Spanish has the silent h. French has the ^. And the list goes on. Why would someone go to the trouble of writing a symbol that means nothing?


The answer, of course, is that it does mean something. Or at least did when it was first introduced. So what did it mean?


Wikipedia says:

Silent letters arise in several ways:


* Pronunciation changes occurring without a spelling change. The spelling was in Old English pronounced x in such words as light.

* Sound distinctions from foreign languages may be lost, as with the distinction between smooth rho (ρ) and roughly aspirated rho (ῥ) in Ancient Greek, represented by and in Latin, but merged to the same r in English. Similarly with / , the latter from Greek phi.

* Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing e.g. silent

in asthma, silent in grandfather. Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial in psychology and in mnemonic.   

* Occasionally, spurious letters are consciously inserted in spelling. The 'b' in debt and doubt was inserted to reflect Latin cognates like debit and dubitable.


Mr. Carvajal explains that the h in words like huevo, huerfano and hueco arose to disambiguate the u from a v, which in those times were often interchangeable in spelling. Thus, huevo signalled that a word was pronounced with u, not v. This also explains why a word like ovulo (ovule), from the same root as huevo (egg), does not carry an h: the o is not confused with a v, and thus requires no disambiguation. In this case, the h acts more as a digraph, "hu", than as a silent letter by itself.


But how to explain the existence of a letter which is *always* silent in a language, such as the Spanish h, when it appears next to all sorts of vowels and not just in a digraph? It is well known that many words spelled with an initial h were once spelled with an f in the h's place. But why did people start using an h, when it symbolized no sound and thus seemingly no purpose? I venture a hypothesis: to provide writers, in a time of transition in which a sound which used to be pronounced stops being pronounced by a sizable fraction of the population, a way to show that they know that the word "ought" to be spelled or pronounced differently, yet retain consistency with the way it is actually pronounced by common people. In other words, I am suggesting that silent letters sometimes originated as an elaborate version of the "(sic)" writers and journalists use today to denote something which is misspelled according to the orthographic conventions of the day but which was actually said. Thus, when Spanish speakers started dropping the initial f in fierro, ferradura, ferrero and formiga, writers came up with a way to reflect what was actually being said without seeming to the literate readers like they did not know that the words 'ought' to have an f: they wrote them with an h instead of the by-then-dropped f: hierro, herradura, herrero and hormiga. Likewise, when French speakers started to drop the s in chasteau (the s persists in English castle, the Spanish castillo and the Italian castello), writers adopted the hat to denote they knew an s used to be there, and came up with the château visitors to the Loire region are so familiar with today. Evidence of the original form, chasteau, can be found, for example, in the title of Anthoni Vilette's 1685 book, 'Le description du chasteau de Versailles'. Indeed, my experience is that changes in language are seldom arbitrary, and for a good reason: language is meant to convey meaning through symbols, and this can only be achieved if the receiving party understands the symbol to mean the same thing as the sender; new symbols are thus faced with the problem of conveying meaning to an audience that does not know its meaning. The difficulty of this makes the evolution of language slow (so much so that Spanish speakers can understand Italians and viceversa despite 2,000 years of divergence from Latin, despite occasional contact through Spain's rule of parts of Italy), and forces inventors of new devices and words to use words that are similar, or identical, to words which already convey a meaning related to the new concept. Thus, computers are named after computation, cars after carriages, search engines after engines and search, and so on.


An alternative hypothesis is that the silent letter appeared by edict --a capritious order by a monarch or bureaucrat. Indeed, Spanish spelling has been regulated centrally by the Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia Española) since 1713, modelled in the Accademia della Crusca italiana (1582) and the Académie française (1635).


Both hypotheses can be distinguished by testing whether the changes (e.g. from fierro to hierro, from Chasteau to château) occurred slowly and gradually, with texts with both spellings overlapping, or whether it happened suddenly, and following an edict.


Up to Origin and Evolution of Language.

TreeOfBabel: A wiki about the origin of languages.

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