Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Right to Remain Silent

I’m talking about letters. One thing that has always intrigued me is the way letters that aren’t spoken in a word affect the pronunciation. Let’s see, there’s right, night, knight (a two-fer), know and knew, gnu, gnat, knife, and many, many more.

So the most common silent letters are the gh combo, k, and h and g by themselves. Both k and g generally appear before n while h, when not with g, likes to hold w’s hand.

This is the wonder of language, how we differentiate pronunciations by letters that aren’t there when we speak it. Take know, for example. It’s pronounced “nö” and rhymes with slow, snow, flow, go, and whoa! If the k weren’t there, it would be now (noü), rhyming with plow, wow, how, and pow. Good thing I’m not getting into how w affects words. Whoa : )

Silent letters are signals a different pronunciation is in order. In a way, they do make a sound : ). With that k there, we know to say nö and nü (knew). With g, we know you’re talking about a kind of gazelle and not a letter of the Greek alphabet. Interesting to note: while kn words tend to be different words with just an n, and gn words aren’t words at all if you drop the g (there is no naw or nash). I think that has to do with g’s linguistic evolution.

Then there’s g and h, which seem to be together in a lot of words. In addition to the ones above, there is height, light, fight and many more. Think about how to pronounce words that end in gh: enough, through, trough, rough, bough, laugh, weigh, though…for words that all have the same letters at the end, they sure are different. Rough is pronounced ruff, but ad a th to it and it’s like the g and h aren’t there! I’m sure it makes sense if you look at the etymology of the words, though.

What is it about this combination of letters that makes them pronounced so odd?

Great. Now I want to study the background of letters. But that’s for another post.  


  1. I agree. The hardest part with that is teaching beginner readers about the sounds of each of those letters and trying to explain!

  2. Cool story, bro!
    Following your blog

  3. I'm working with my seven-year-old son on silent letters, and he always looks at me like I'm crazy. Oh well, he'll catch on someday!


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