grammar question (silent e)

what’s up with the silent “e” in English ?


what’s the reason ?
Was there a time they pronounced the “e”

and why not skip it !

In the case of “practice” and “difference,” it is because the “e” indicates that one pronounces the word with a “soft c” - prac-tiss and differ-enss. If there were no “e” at the end of the word, it would be prac-tick or differ-enk.

For “anecdote,” “care” and perhaps also “nature” and “anymore,” the “e” indicates a long vowel sound. Without those final "e"s they would be anec-dot and car.

“Europe” and “some” were pronounced differently in the past. I think “some” was once pronounced to rhyme with “roam,” thus necessitating the final e to indicate vowel pronunciation.


The final “e” was certainly pronounced in Old English and Early Middle English Germanic vocabulary – as it still is in modern German. There was a PBS special years ago called The Story of English. In this special, they showed some English students reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales aloud, in the language as spoken in the 14th century. You could hear lots of final e’s bing pronounced. The opening lines of the The Canterbury Tales Prologue:

In the excerpt above, notice the Middle English words with final “e”. Here’s how they are pronounced:

shoures = /shoo - res/
soote = /soo - tuh/
droghte = /drokh - tuh/
roote = /roh - tuh/
perced = /pear - sed/
bathed = /bahth - ed/
veyne = /vay - nuh/

Another thing, we write what is essentially how things were written in the 15th century when printing, and subsequent standardization of the writing system began to be cemented as you see it today. After the way words were written was standardized, the “great vowel shift” occured which changed the values of the vowels but the way words were written stayed the same.

So blame printing (in part) for the complexities of English orthography.

All these explanations are only partial. I think most (but not all) the words with silent e come from French, where they are usually silent but pronounced in poetry. But consider “house”, which is “Haus” in German, with essentially identical pronunciation. The vowel is not long (well, it is phonetically, but the use of “long vowel” in English does accord with the phonetics, but is an arbitrary name for certain quality distinctions) and I don’t think the singular was ever pronounced haus-e, so why the “e”? Beats me. Same with mouse, Ger. Maus. Then consider “fragile”, which is definitely not pronounced with a long i. Yesterday, I heard another foreign speaker massacre “infinite”, because of weird spelling. Let’s face it, English spelling is irrational. I think someone recently found 10 different pronunciations of “ough”.

I’ve heard fragile pronounced with a long i. Fairly often, actually.

And the ten different pronunciations of “ough” is hardly “recent.”

You go back a few hundred years and you’ll find five ways to spell every word. Middle English was completely unstandardized, apparently. I’ve been reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and there are times when the author spelled the same word two different ways in the exact same sentence. The spellings we keep today are fairly arbitrary, apparently.

I’ve seen nine. “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”

Of course, the classic ‘diatribe’ against the vagaries of English pronunctiation is The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité.

Lets simplify things a bit. The grapheme ve, for example, is a way to write the sound /v/ This spelling is obvously from a period where ve was a different sound, or from a language that wrote the same sound that way. I really shouldn’t be speculating because these things really are known. But I’m not going to look it up because as a reader and a speller (I try anyway) of the English language, I need to know what sounds the graphemes represent in today’s speech.

Saying that we have silent letters is just really confusing. Lets just say we have different ways to write the same sound. The sound /oe/ in boat for example can be spelled, o-e, oe,oa,o,ow or ough. Is the a in oa silent? Ever hear anyone talking about the silent a? How about the silent h in this? Its obviously a two character grapheme. Well the same is true for those “silent” "e"s. They arent silent. They are part of multicharacter gaphemes.

Hope this helps.

I have to chime in here to clear up a few things.

Hari Seldon, you say “let’s face it, English spelling is irrational.” This is true, but it is irrattional for two reasons (essentially). First of all, the people who came up with the standard system were not experts in how speech sounds are made. (In fact I believe it was a sort of haphazard affair involving many different people over a fairly long period of time.) Second, the language was fixed at a time when English was pronounced differently.

As for the silent ‘e’, it was pronounced at one time in English. If you find a silent ‘e’ in a word in English you can bet that at one time English speakers were pronouncing it.

racinchikki, the reason Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" has the same words spelled differently is that English had not yet standardized its spelling. If I’m not mistaken it was written well before this process ocurred. Since there was no accepted spelling people wrote however they damn well felt like. This contuinued well after there was a standard for spelling.

The problem is that spelling a language according to how a word sounds means that the spelling system is likely to become obsolete after the language changes sufficiently. On the other hand, if you spell strictly according to how you pronounce a word then others may have a hard time understanding what you 've written if their pronunciation varies from yours by any significant amount.

I did a little research on Dutch for my Linguistics class and it provides an interesting contrast to English. In general Dutch spelling makes much more sense. Individual letters are not perfectly consistent in their pronunciation, but they follow very regular rules (at least for standard Dutch). For example, with the exception of ‘n’ voiced word-final consonsants are always devoiced (meaning a ‘b’ becomes a ‘p’, a ‘d’ becomes a ‘t’ etc.) Word-final ‘n’ is simply deleted. Dutch spelling does not reflect this devoicing because if the same word stem has a suffix added on, changing the consonant from word final to word medial, then it doesn’t devoice. There are other ways in which Dutch is not spelled strictly phonetically, but this is a good example of the exceptions.

The reason Dutch fits with its spelling better is that the King of the Netherlands appointed a commision of experts to come up with a standard system in the lalte 19th century. They came up with a system that reflected both word sounds and word history but emphasized word sounds. The standardization occurred much later than in English and it was created by people who had a fairly good idea of how speech sounds ought to be classified.*

I am not a native speaker of Dutch and base my statements on what I read during my research. I have heard the word-final devoicing in Dutch music as well as in my Dutch friends’ speech, but I don’t speak Dutch and so it is difficult for me to say for sure whether I was really hearing it or it was only wishful thinking. (I think not, but…)

*Or at least their ideas jibe better with our own. It is possible to classify speech sounds fairly logically by the position of your tongue, the shape of your lips, whether your nasal cavity is open to the vocal tract or not, the mechanism for moving air through the vocal tract, and whether or not the vocal folds are vibrating. Nevertheless, all speech sounds are on a continuum and can only be broken up into separate sounds arbitrarily. Despite this, all humans, as far as we know, do in fact break sounds into discrete chunks that they recognize as different.

sjc, I said in my post that Middle English was highly unstandardized.