75% of English consonant letters sometimes appear in the spelling of a word without being pronounceable
THE PROBLEM OF SILENT CONSONANTS
One of the many peculiarities of English spelling is its occasional use of consonant letters that are not pronounced when the word is spoken. This phenomenon is likely to be encountered by learners of English even at very elementary levels, in such words as knee, night and talk. A common reason for it is that the unexpected spellings once did represent the way their word was pronounced, but they stopped doing so because the pronunciation of the word changed as a result of the natural evolution that all languages undergo. The spellings of the words have not changed because spellings in general tend to be kept the same.
Some words with a silent consonant actually do not seem to be much of a learning problem. However, many others are, the usual manifestation being erroneous pronunciation of the consonants in speech. In this post I wish to survey and classify the wide variety of words that contain one or more silent consonants, in the hope that raised awareness might assist some readers to improve their pronunciation (or spelling) of English.
Other Guinlist posts touching on consonant pronunciation include 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary and 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary. For information about unexpected pronunciations of vowels, see 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings and 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”.
DEFINITION OF SILENT CONSONANTS
It is important to distinguish silent consonants from a variety of other consonant letters that are not pronounced in their typical way. Of these latter, an important group is consonant letters that combine with a neighbouring letter either to make a sound that neither would make by itself or to remove ambiguity about how the other letter should be pronounced. If this other letter is a vowel, the indicated sound will also be a vowel; otherwise it will be a consonant.
Typical consonant letters that combine with a vowel in this way, so that they cannot be considered silent, are “h”, “w” and “y”, as in oh, cow and toy. The letter “r” is also one in Australian and Southern British English, for example in cart and term (it only ever has the /r/ sound at the start of a syllable), but is clearly pronounced in the USA, Ireland and Scotland. Two consonant letters that commonly combine with particular other consonant letters in this way are “h” in words like choice, phrase, show and think, and “k” after “c” (back, check, ticket etc.).
Another type of consonant letter that is not silent despite being pronounced in an unexpected way is, in certain positions, the letters for the so-called “plosive” consonants (/p, t, k, b, d, g/). These letters are often only partially pronounced before other plosive sounds (as in stop doing and log cabin) and at the end of sentences (see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud). It is easy to think they are completely silent in such situations when in fact they are not.
Thirdly, I am not including as silent consonants letters that contribute to doubling within words (e.g. beginning) or that are located at the end of a word before a repetition of themselves at the start of the word after, as in can never, while looking and turned down. Although the two identical letters in these latter are pronounced as a single sound, they need more time to be pronounced than if they were just a single letter (see “lengthening” in 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud). Doubled letters are also considered to include combinations like -nm- and -db- in environment and handbag, where the first letter is not absent but becomes the same as the letter after it, and then combines with it to make a single long consonant.
COMMON SILENT CONSONANTS IN ENGLISH
I have been able identify the following categories of silent consonant:
1. The Letter “k”
This seems to be silent only and always at the start of words (even words within longer words) where there is a following “n” (knack, knead, knee, breadknife, knight, knock, know, knuckle etc.).
2. The Letter “h”
At the start of a word, this letter is silent in honour and its derivatives (honourable, honorific, honorarium etc.) and also honest. In addition, there are hour and heir.
In most varieties of English, “h” after a starting “w” is silent, as in wheat, when, where, whether, whet, whey, while, whistle and why.
Inside words, a common silent occurrence is in -ham at the end of British (not American) place names like Birmingham, Cheltenham, Tottenham and Nottingham (it is pronounced /-әm/ in all of these). The word vehicle has no /h/ sound, being pronounced /’vi: jә kl/, and there is none in shepherd and silhouette. The “h” in Thames can also be called silent because it does not alter the /t/ to /θ/. Similar is “h” after “r” in words of Greek origin like rhyme, rhino and diarrhoea.
Finally, “h” is silent after “c” in words of Greek origin, such as choir; it does not change the sound of “c” in any way (see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary). Other examples are anarchy, anchor, cholesterol, chorus, Christmas, chrome, epoch, orchestra, psychology and scheme.
3. The Letter “p”
Words of Greek origin beginning “ps-”, “pt-” or “pn-“ tend to be pronounced without the /p/ (see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary). Examples are combinations with psych- (psychology, psychic) and pseudo- (pseudonym, pseudopod), as well as psalm, pterodactyl and pneumatic.
Elsewhere, three notable words are receipt (/rɪ ‘si:t/), coup (/ku:/) and corps (/kɔ:/), the latter two being borrowings from French.
4. The Letter “b”
A major context for the silence of this letter is after “m” at the end of a word, as in bomb, climb, comb, crumb, dumb, lamb, limb, tomb and womb. The “b” remains silent even after the addition of -ing, -ed or -er (bombing, combing, dumbing, lambed, dumber), but not in the verbs crumble (which is like humble and tumble) or limber (like timber).
In addition, there are some words where a silent “b” is followed by “t”, e.g. debt, doubt and subtle.
5. The Letter “l”
The main locations of this are inside the three modal verbs could, would, should; between “a”/“o” and “k” in words like stalk, talk, walk, folk and yolk; and between “a” and “m”, e.g. alms, calm, palm, psalm and salmon.
6. The Letter “s”
A few words of French origin have a silent “s” at the end (corps, debris, rendezvous). Words with it in the middle include isle, aisle, island and viscount. The “i” is pronounced /ɑɪ/ in all of these (see 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”).
7. The Letter “t”
This letter is usually silent when sandwiched between “s” and “le”, as in bustle, castle, epistle, pestle, rustle and thistle, and often silent between “f”/“s” and “en” in words like often, soften, listen, glisten, fasten and hasten.
Words that end in “-et” tend to be borrowings from French. Some must be pronounced in the French way, ending in the vowel /eɪ/ without “t”, some not (see 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). The former include ballet, beret, bidet, bouquet, buffet (= self-service food), cachet, chalet, croquet, duvet, ricochet, sobriquet, tourniquet and valet.
8. The Letter “w”
There are two striking contexts for this silent letter. One is words beginning “wr-”, such as wrestle, wring, wrong, wrought and wry. The other is a few words (usually place names) ending in “-wich” or “-wick”, for example Greenwich and Harwich (but not Midwich) and Chiswick and Warwick (but not Gatwick or Northwick).
Another notable place name is Southwark (pronounced /’sʌ ԺƏk/), and “w” is also silent in two, who, whole and sword.
9. The Letter “c”
One silent use of this letter is after “s” in words like ascent, crescent, irascible, miscellaneous, nascent, reminisce, scene, science and visceral. This group does not include rescind because the “c” there is changing the pronunciation of the neighbouring “s” into /∫/. Another use is before unstressed “es” in such British place names as Leicester, Worcester, Bicester and Gloucester. One other notable silent “c” is in indict.
10. The Letter “g”
This letter is commonly silent between “i” and “n” in words like align, benign, deign, feign, foreign, reign, sign and malign. However, it is not silent in poignant (since it changes the following /n/ to /nj/) nor in benignant and malignant. Other notable words are champagne, gnome, gnu and phlegm. Recognise seems to allow a choice about pronouncing the “g”.
11. The Letters “gh”
These are well-known silent letters before “t” in words like bright, fight, might, tight, ought, brought, sought, thought, caught, taught, eight, height and weight. They also occur without the “t” in though, through, bough, plough, high, weigh, neighbour etc. (however, they are less “silent” in cough and tough because the consonant sound /f/, though unexpected, exists where they occur).
12. Other Letters
There is a silent “n” at the end of autumn, column, condemn and solemn, while at the start of mnemonic it is the “m” that is silent. In iron, the “r” is silent, in yacht the “ch” and in Wednesday the first “d” (along with the following “e”). Some borrowed French words, such as laissez-faire and rendezvous, contain a silent “z”.
It is probable that some interesting examples of silent consonants are missing from these lists. Readers who are aware of any are invited to mention them via the comment facility below.