How many words have a silent letter?

Silent letters in EnglishThe English language is full of words whose written form can be deceptive. Unlike a language like Spanish, in English we rarely sound out all the letters t

How many words have a silent letter?

Silent letters in English

The English language is full of words whose written form can be deceptive. Unlike a language like Spanish, in English we rarely sound out all the letters that we see.

The result is a series of words which are written in a way which seems very different from their sound. Lots of these strange silent letters are due to the history of the English language. Not only has it absorbed plenty of vocabulary from invaders, like French, Latin and Norse, but the eventual standardization of sounds in the English language has meant that certain words, whilst keeping their older forms of spelling, have had their sounds refined and softened.

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Thanks to this development of the language, we are now left with hundreds and hundreds of English words which have some surprising silent letters. Here we take a look at some common words with silent letters, and how to pronounce them.

The silent K: You need to know

The k in English is traditionally a hard-sounding vowel cah or kah, especially when its at the end of a word: back, for instance. However, when the letter k precedes the letter n at the start of a word, it falls silent; such as know. Know is interesting, because even though the k is silent (we dont say cah-noh), it is not pronounced the same way as now.

  • Know = noh. Now = naow.

Heres a few words which have a silent k at the start and a hard k later on: knock, knack, knapsack, knickers, knuckle.

The silent P: Psychology with no receipt

The p, usually a popping sound made at the front of the mouth, is silenced when it precedes an s. Most of these words with silent ps are to do with the mind or the medicine of the mind: Psychology, psychiatry, psyche, psychological, psychotic or pseudo.

Indeed, when p or ps starts a word it is almost always medical. This is thanks to its Greek origins. Pneumonia  caused when you catch excessive cold  also has a silent p, so it is pronounced new-moan-ee-a.

Finally, youll every now and then find a silent p in the middle of a word, such as receipt. In English we say re-seet, with no p sounding in the second syllable, though some would argue that the p is there to slightly soften the sound.


The silent c: Miscellaneous muscle

A bit like the k, the c is usually a hard sound (unless followed by an h; ch is soft, think cheese, cheers). However, when following an s it is often silent.

  • Muscle  we say the same as mussel, the seafood.
  • Miscellaneous  pronounced mis- sell- lay  nee  ous.

Whilst you do not hear the c, it does slightly change the sound. Scene for instance, has the first sound slightly further forward in the mouth than seen, its rhyme. Likewise, the c works in slightly softening what would otherwise be a very hard, hissy ss sound. Other key words with silent cs include: ascend,ascent/descent,fascinate,fluorescent, incandescent, obscene, scene, scenario or scented.

The silent g: Benign gnomes

This is one of our favourites. There are many words which sound normal, and should be spelt in a normal simple way  and all of a sudden theres a g in there. Foreign is a classic example  the only thing foreign in that word is the g!

We dont sound the hard guh sound of the g in these words, but its inclusion does give a slight lengthening of the vowel sound  for-reyn.

Heres a few more examples: gnome, benign, malign, design, deign, gnash, sign

A great example of how the silent g isnt quite silent; if we didnt pronounce the g at all, this would be sin. However, the g lightens and elongates the vowel sound  to be pronounced sigh-n. This is true for all ign words  imagine that the ign sounds like sigh (de-sigh-n; mal-ighn).

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The silent b:A bomb with aplomb

There are plenty of words in the English language that smuggle in a b where its not needed, supposedly.

The silent b, usually coming after an m, is not pronounced b as it would normally be at the front of a word (boy). However, as with most of these examples, it does soften and slightly elongate the word  so whereas tomb would sound like toh-m or the name Tom is we just took out the b, tomb is pronounced tooh-m.

Here are some key examples: climb, comb, crumb, debt, thumb, tomb or womb.

The silent n:Damn solemn autumn

Not dissimilar to the silent b, the silent n usually appears after an m and is not pronounced nuh as an n normally is, but simply functions to soften the words final vowel sound a little. The n is silenced, within the mouth, but it makes these words subtly longer than if they just ended in m: hymn, damn, solemn, condemn or column.

The silent t: A whistle! Listen!

Ah the confusing silent t. The t  tuh sound  is one of the most recognisable and strong sounds in the English language  yet in the middle of listen, it disappears!

Instead the t becomes a little like another, slightly shorter s: listen becomes lissen; whistle is whissle etc. Heres a few more: hustle, jostle, apostle, bristle, thistle or wrestle.

Finally, an interesting fact. A long while ago this t wasnt silent. This letter would have been sounded in many regional Englishes, but during the English Vowel Shift which took place from the late 1400s on, these regional anomalies were softened up. In fact, list could be used as a shortened form of the word, very common in Shakespeares England and before. Heres a bit of Antony and Cleopatra from 1607, act 4 scene 3:

Peace, what noise? / List, list! / Hark! / Music i the air.

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