Why do we have silent letters?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by aaqucnaona, Dec 24, 2011.

  1. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    Like in arctic, if we know its supposed to be prononced
    ar [as in arse] tick, not ark tick;
    why is the extra c there?
    And why aren't such letters thrown away [where doing so would not make a word with some different meaning]?
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  3. keith1 Guest

    I believe the word does sound like "Ark-tick".

    (The tick of the arc is 0 degrees)?

    Choose another example.
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  5. Cifo Day destroys the night, Registered Senior Member

    Originally from the Greek αρκτικος (arktikos) meaning "of the north," literally "of the (constellation) Bear," from Greek αρκτος (arktos) meaning "bear".

    The bear constellation is either Ursa Major (Latin for "Great Bear", aka "the Big Dipper") or Ursa Minor (Latin for "Little Bear", aka "the Little Dipper"). Both constellations are seen toward the north, and Ursa Minor contains the North Star, aka Polaris (from Latin stella polaris, meaning the "polar star", the pole being the North Pole).

    The Latin ursa and Greek αρκτος (arktos) are related words (ie, they come from the same original word).
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2011
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  7. Pincho Paxton Banned Banned

    nok nok
    hoo's there?
    cris hoo

    There's a whole concoction of examples!

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  8. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    There are various reasons for silent letters.

    They may change the pronunciation of another letter in the word, as in vague: the u makes the g hard, while the e makes the a long; vag means something else and vage would sound like wage, in which is the e is necessary to differentiate it from wag, which means something else. So many words, so few letters!

    Another reason is that the spelling and pronunciation were both different in the language from which a word originated. English is like a very old house that's had many owners: at least six languages contributed substantially to its present-day form. It has also been changed over time by the various regional speakers, as well as by the development of new customs, cultural innovations and social relationships. Spoken vernacular changes more quickly and radically than formal written language or the rules of grammar and spelling.

    We can't include here letters that dropped carelessly, at the middle t in dentist or mispronunciations, as 'groshies' for groceries, nor slang and regional elisions, such as the silent initial h in Cockney or the silent terminal g of urban American.

    The rules do change in popular parlance, which is eventually accepted by print media and then education authorities, linguists and the compilers of dictionaries. But some care must be exercised by scholars not to include ephemeral usage and misapplications, and not to change the language so rapidly as to impede communication.
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2011
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The short answer: Unlike every other major European language (except French, which is even worse), English has never had a serious spelling reform.

    The language of Modern English didn't really arise until around the 14th century, when the Norman French who ruled England were assimilated into the English population and English replaced French as the language of government and business. Since up until that point English had never been an official language, the few people who both:
    • Knew how to read and write, and
    • Wanted to bother to write in English,
    just tried their best to write words phonetically the way they sounded in their own regional dialects. This was especially hard because they were stuck with the Roman alphabet, which does not have nearly as many letters as there are sounds in English.

    On top of that difficulty, there were three additional problems.
    • Because of the Norman occupation, a zillion French words had been adopted into English, and they were written in their original French spelling. This is why "parcel," "queue" and "tableau" are not spelled "parsel," "kew" and "tabloe." It also answers the specific question about "arctic." That C was already silent in French but it just got carried along.
    • The second problem is that English phonetics underwent some phenomenal changes since then. Long A, E and I were once "ah," "ey" and "ee" as in most European languages. The E at the end of "wife" and "gone" wasn't always silent, and neither was the GH in "night" or the W in "two." These are just a few of the most prominent phonetic shifts. English words were spelled a lot closer to the way they sounded in those days.
    • Finally, as England and later the USA became centers of culture, diplomacy, science and scholarship, our language assimilated thousands of foreign words, usually with their original foreign spellings.
    The reason that English spelling was never modernized and normalized as it was in German, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Portuguese, Swedish and many other languages is that there are too many regional accents. If we spelled a word as it's pronounced in London, that won't be the way it's pronounced in either Birmingham, West Midlands, or Birmingham, Alabama. So for most anglophones there would be no advantage, and the results would not be worth the tremendous time, effort and confusion.

    Many people today pronounce the C in "arctic" and "antarctic" because they think it's correct and they're trying to pass themselves off as more educated than they are. These are the same people who pronounce the T in "often" (it's been silent for 200 years) and who think that the past tense of "to dive" is "dove" (it's "dived").

    I'm waiting for someone to start a fad of pronouncing the S in "island." At least the C in "arctic" and the T in "often" have some vague claim to historical authenticity. But the spelling "island" is a lexicographer's mistake! Somebody in the Dark Ages thought it was related to the word "isle," which is of French origin. It's actually a native Anglo-Saxon compound, i-land, meaning "water land," i.e., "land surrounded by water."

    It's impossible to start correcting ancient spellings. Everybody knows the old way. So do our spell checkers. The countries who did it had either:
    • An extremely strong authoritarian government that just mandated the changes, like Germany.
    • One region that was dominant culturally so the rest of the people grudgingly accepted its spelling, like Florence in Italy.
    The UK and the USA will never accept an "improved" spelling system that represents the other country's pronunciation. Is it "father" or "fathah" -- "just" or "joost" -- "labratory" or "laboratry" -- "skejool" or "shedyool"?
  10. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    Its past midnight here and I am sleepy - I can't spell properly!
    Dammit evolution of language - apparently being able to spell when sleepy was not enough of an evoultionary advantage. I have to correct every other word!

    Btw, fraggle, you really do know everything about everything dont you?
    I'm impressed.
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The technology of writing was invented in the Bronze Age. It evolved from the tick marks and hash marks that merchants and traders used to record transactions and obligations among the anonymous strangers who populated the growing cities. So it only goes back four or five thousand years and phonetic writing systems are even newer than that, not far enough to have an impact on our evolution.

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    Hardly! I'm not a linguist by profession and I don't even have a degree in the subject. Most of what I know was learned informally.
    Well I hope my confession didn't spoil that!

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  12. aaqucnaona This sentence is a lie Valued Senior Member

    I have read that writing emerged primarily as an accounting system in early agrarian civilizations about 8-10 thousand years ago to keep tract of the expanding resources made available by agriculture. It was a joke [about evolution]. Btw, isnt the earliest written record of any kind some sort of grocery list from mesipotemia[sure as hell didn't spell that right]?

    Actually, my awe has increased. Imagine debating you in your field of expertise.

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    You may as well begin such a debate with "I win! Ha Ha!"
  13. KilljoyKlown Whatever Valued Senior Member


    If you keep talking like that, Fraggle will get an over sized head. But he is human and can be wrong just like the rest of us. I will say he's not wrong very often and when he is, it sounds better than most others when they are right. There's a lot to be said for being articulate to his level.

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  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Not quite correct. The Agricultural Revolution 12KYA was the first Paradigm Shift: a new technology that fundamentally changed the way humans live. It both allowed and required us to stop being nomads and build permanent settlements where we could cultivate crops and herd animals. The next Paradigm Shift was the building of cities around 10KYA, which required us to overcome our pack-social instinct and learn to live in harmony and cooperation with complete strangers like herd-social animals. The next one was the discovery of metallurgy (bronze, an alloy of tin and copper) about 5-6KYA. This increased our productivity so much that the explosion of new kinds of goods and services made city life too complicated for the old Stone Age style of management by patriarch. Complex time-delayed transactions took place within a "virtual group" of people, most of whom would never meet each other in person. (Cobbler needs a roof, roofer needs beer, brewer needs a wagon, wainwright needs music for his daughter's birthday, lutenist needs shoes, and these trades are spread over a year and a half and nobody knows anybody except the people he's directly trading with.) This required a formal system of hierarchical government, and it also required recordkeeping.

    This is when a system of symbols was developed. Also consider that writing requires something to write on and something to write with. Pottery was invented in the Stone Age, but it's hard to write on clay with sticks or flint. Metal writing tools made it more practical. They also made it possible to create more durable writing by carving symbols into stone.
    Not exactly a grocery list, more like an inventory or a bill of lading.
    Mesopotamia. From Greek mesos "middle" and potamos "river," literally "(The land) between the (Tigris and Euphrates) rivers." It's now Iraq plus bits of Iran, Syria and Turkey.

    Of course that's what the Greeks called it a couple of thousand years later. I'm not sure anybody knows what the people who lived there then called it. It's called the Cradle of Civilization because the earliest archeological evidence of city-building is there in the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations. Several cities that claim to be the oldest continuously-inhabited on earth are there or nearby, including Damascus, Jericho, Byblos and Sidon, although they surely started out as agricultural villages and it's hard to pick a point at which they became true cities.
    Unfortunately (for this purpose although it pays well) I'm in information technology. Anything you learned in IT more than five years ago is obsolete so it puts us old guys at a disadvantage.
    Especially when you make a living as a writer, speaker, teacher and editor.

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  15. KilljoyKlown Whatever Valued Senior Member

    How about words that sound alike but are spelled differently such as.

    knead, need, currant, current, accept, except, leased, least, accede, exceed

    whether, weather, complement, compliment, council, counsel, desert, dessert

    canvas, canvass, cereal, serial, principal, principle, coarse, course

    braise, brays, palette, pallet, naval, navel, boarder, border, gorilla, guerilla

    medal, meddle, storey, story, berth, birth, moose, mousse, muscle, mussel

    There are to many to list them all here, but talk about messing with those of us who are memory impaired.

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  16. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    All of those words were originally pronounced differently.
    • knead, need, -- The K in knead, knight, know, knife, etc. was not originally silent. Neither was the G in gnaw, gnash, gnarled, etc.
    • leased, least -- The E in the past tense ending was not originally silent. "Leased" was a two-syllable word.
    • whether, weather -- Even today many people pronounce these words differently. They pronounce "whether" as though it were spelled HWETHER.
    • gorilla, guerilla -- If you're speaking formally you'd pronounce the O in gorilla.
    I guess you should have added too/to/two to your list.

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    I don't think a Chinese person would be very sympathetic. They have to know 2,000 distinct logograms to be able read at the high school level, 5,000 at the university level.

    Japanese has fewer symbols, "only" about 2,300, but their writing system is more complicated. You have to know whether a word should be written as a Chinese logogram, or phonetically using one of two syllabaries (each symbol represents an entire syllable, not one sound) depending on whether it's a Japanese word or a foreign word or abbreviation. And they all know the Roman alphabet too. They think we have it easy.

    In Hebrew they don't write the vowels except in textbooks for children and foreign students, and in the Torah for people who only use the language in religious services. You're expected to know which ones go where.

    And as I pointed out already, English spelling is rather easy and regular compared to French. Half the letters are silent but you don't know which half.

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  17. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

    Why everyone knows that only humans can talk, letters can't!

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  18. elte Valued Senior Member

    I usually unconsciously translate what people speak to the way I pronounce. I haven't realized that people don't pronounce the "c" in "arctic," or the "t" in "often." But when someone says "nuclear" wrong, I notice.

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  19. Telemachus Rex Protesting Mod Stupidity Registered Senior Member

    As to the pronunciation of "arctic," Merriam Webster suggests both pronunciations are accepted:


    And as to "dive", it likewise suggests that both "dived" and "dove" are accepted:


    I personally am glad for those, as I was raised from childhood with what Fraggle seems to suggest are the "pretentious" versions, all the while not realizing my pretension nor that of pretty much everyone I was raised with in Northeast Philly.

    I do accept that "dove" developed only recently (possibly based on a false parallelism with verbs like drive/drove), I just reject the notion that its usage is the result of people taking on false airs of education.

    It reminds me of the Jennifer Garner's pretentiously telling Conan O'Brien that "snuck" isn't a real word (another one I was raised with):


    It's a word in general use now by many that also formed based on a loose analogy with another verb (in this case strike/struck). I find it especially appropriate that the word "snuck" snuck into the language!
  20. Cifo Day destroys the night, Registered Senior Member


    I'm fascinated with etymology. I grew up being told that currants were not raisins, but now I know that currants are raisins ... raisins originally from Corinth (Greece) — a name corrupted over the years that became ... currant.

    I know a very old man who pronounces whether as "hwether", whale as "hwale", etc.
  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    This is a common linguistic phenomenon: popular nomenclature (which in English goes back more than a thousand years) does not agree with scientific classification (which in biology only goes back a couple of centuries).

    Currants, such as redcurrants and blackcurrants, are a large group of berry-producing plants of the angiosperm clade Eudicots, which includes 70% of flowering plants. A major exception is the Zante currant, which is well-known in the English-speaking world, and outside the USA is often called simply a "currant." It is indeed a raisin (i.e., a dried grape) of the Black Corinth variety of grape, Vitis vinifera. Grapes are members of the angiosperm clade Magnoliophyta, which puts them in the other 30% of flowering plants. This makes them related to the "true currants" at the most distant possible level: they are both flowering plants, the only plants that produce seeds and fruit at all.

    The similarity in shape and flavor of the fruit is a coincidence: many plants from vastly different clades reproduce by producing berries, just as many do it by producing nuts, drupes, aggregates, etc. This is a classic example of convergent evolution.

    Other unrelated plants produce fruits that are called currants, including the bush currant and the currant tomato.
    He would have an easy time learning Mandarin. Most Americans struggle to produce the HW sound. Although I think it's because it's not taught properly. Say hoo ah, then speed it up to hoo-AH, then faster to hooAH, and finally it becomes hua ("language," "flower," "paint," depending on the tone).

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