Linguists: silent French letters

When I think of English words with silent letters (faux, faus pas, coup) they all sound a bit French to me. Are most English words with silent letters of a French origin or am I just experiencing confirmation bias?

You should keep in mind that all letters are silent. Ink on a page or pixels on a screen don’t make sound, no matter what the letter.

But to get to your question, the most common words in English which are written with “superfluous” letters are mostly not of French origin. Words such as bite, light, right, knife, and dumb all are much more commonly used than those French words you mention.

Noisy French letters are distracting and may cause you to lose your erection.

The e muet is counted as having syllabic value in French prosody, and in singing is actually articulated as a schwa sound. Relics of earlier stages of French, when it was a pronounced vowel. At the end of a word it usually corresponds to Latin -a, which is why final -e is the most usual marker of the feminine gender in French. Most words of Latin origin got into English via French, which is why we have silent -e where Italian has -a, e.g. rose < rosa.

Quite a long time ago I asked on this board why the “u” is silent after the “q” and the explanation I got was that it was an importation from a Phoenician consonant.

What about the ones which come with a microchip and play your national athem?

Jackdavinci, are you thinking more of silent final consonants rather than simply silent letters? I’m wondering about the words you chose as examples versus the words people have been choosing in their examples.

No, but I probably was thinking more of silent consonants than vowels.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any kind of chip in that area when I’m engaged in…that activity.

Which brings up the question; What is the origin of “French letters” meaning condoms? Google brings up all sorts of wrong stuff about French literature. The only thing I can find is that French soldiers did use the term in WWI. But why? And were they the first?

Well, the letter does ultimately derive from a Phoenician one, as most English/Latin letters do, but that doesn’t really answer your question. The proper answer to your question is “What makes you think the <u> is usually silent after <q>? In most such words, the <u> is reasonably analyzed as representing the /w/ sound, the <q> only representing the /k/ sound in itself.”

(Yes, yes, I’m ignoring words like “macaque” and “torque”…)

Doesn’t “q” ordinarily make a “kw” sound? Not that you ordinarily see it by itself…

I guess I’m used to “q” sounding like “kw” from “QANTAS” (admittedly an acronym and coined trade mark, and not a proper word).

We’re probably splitting hair but I always viewed the “u” as a silent auxillary letter, in different sense admittedly to that silent consonants in French.

Isn’t the second “t” in words like “letter” silent? Cf. “meter”?

“Clarinet” vs “claret”?

I almost all of the few Q words without Q U, the Q is pronounced like K (qat, qintar,Qabala, etc)

I used to work with an utterly insane Frenchman. He was good value if you were in the mood for him - obese, foppish, theatrically homosexual, and very, very cranky. Not to mention proud. He would spit, "I THINK you mean to say “English cap!”, and maintained that is a real French expression for condom.

Looking back, I can see his crankiness and understand it better. I was a newbie at the post office, and he was old school. And now I realise that yes, he actually had heard all the postal “French letter” jokes before, and yes, they do wear thin (herk herk herk).

Most silent letters in English were once pronounced - for instance “knight” was pronounced something like “kuh-ni-guh-tuh”. It had nothing to do with their origin - “knight” is actually Old English in origin. It had more to do with pronunciation changing over the years, and spelling not changing to keep up with it. (In the days before printing, when all books were copied by hand, scribes would modify spellings to conform to pronunciation, but once books were mass produced by printing, that tended to fix spellings permanently.)

Another source of silent letters was grammarians insisting that a word’s spelling should reflect its origins. “Debt” got its b that way - it was originally “dette” but since it originated as the Latin “debitus” it had a silent b added. Likewise “doubt” (from Latin “dubitare”) was originally “doute” in English.

You can assign the value <q>=/kw/ (i.e. the written character “q” is pronounced “kw”) if you design your own language. Just like in English, <x>=/ks/, a single grapheme standing for a combination of two sounds. J.R.R. Tolkien did this in the early stages of developing Elvish languages. At first he wrote “Qenya” which was meant to be pronounced “Quenya.” But in the mature stage of the language, he dropped that idea and used <qu> for the sound of /kw/. I don’t know of any other examples where <q>=/kw/.

Our letter q is descended from a Semitic letter that originally designated an unvoiced uvular stop– articulated farther back in the throat than the sound of /k/. It still has this value in standard Arabic. Since European languages don’t have that sound, it has become assimilated to K, which is a velar stop. Even in modern Hebrew, the postvelar Q has now shifted to the pronunciation of K (except for Jews native to Arab countries, who still use the ancient Hebrew sounds corresponding to Arabic).

Since most languages don’t have the uvular stop in their phonetic inventory, Q is a left-over extra letter, it goes back into the unused-letter hopper and can be called up for duty whenever there’s a sound that needs its own letter.
In Chinese Pinyin, Q stands for a “tch” affricate.
In Albanian, it’s a palatal stop, like in the British pronunciation of “tune.”
In Xhosa and Zulu, it’s a click.
In Fijian, it’s a prenasalized voiced velar stop: ngg, as in finger.

what silent consonants are in these words? :confused:

“Claret” = silent “t”. Perhaps its the local pronounciation.

Same deal with “mortgage”?

I had a shot at learning Mandarin/Putongua a few years ago and figured the Roman letter representation of “qi” and “xi” were entirely arbitrary, because the way my tongue was working those sounds didn’t correlate to how we say the letters.

Similarly, the way my friends who have lived in the UAE pronounce “Qatar” doesn’t match to how Westerners ordinarily pronounce “q”.

Do we use English when we pronounce foreign words? As I said, the only indigeneous example of a “q” without a “qu” word I can think of is ‘QANTAS’ and its a bad example. So is <q>=/kw/ or does <qu> = /kw/, mindful that we might be using English when we say non-English words like “qatar” and “qi”?

I quite think you’ve answered your own question.

I suppose so. “Mortgage” comes direct from medieval French (“mort gaige”, meaning “dead pledge”, and the original French had a silent t as well. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the original spelling was “morgage” in English.

A more interesting example is “adventure” which was originally “aventure” with no d. Because it derived from Latin advenire “to come about”, a silent d was added, but after a while people, seeing the d in print, started to pronounce it.