How and why did silent letters emerge in English?
The easy answer is “because English can’t leave well enough alone.” When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time, and then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language start changing at uneven rates. By the 1400s, English starts to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulate vowels in words like “loud” changes slowly but dramatically, and that has an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling becomes fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.
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Have you ever wondered about it? Do you think silent letters should be present in English?
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