Who introduced silent letters into words if they are not a nessesity?

I have long wondered about silent letters and what brought them about.

Why have them, it is another character in a word that we dont need… and to some people it becomes a neusense when trying to spell… for example ‘subtle’; pronounced ‘suttle’. I

s it possible that the ancient civilisations that these words derived from pronounced the silent letter, and now we are too lazy to pronounce it in every day speech?
Or is there a different reason.?


Okay, let’s take the “subtle” example.

It was “sutile” before 1325. This came from Old French to English. But the origin was “subtilis” from Latin, and by the 1500’s “subtle” was being used in imitation of the Latin.

A silent “b” through linguistic snobbery?

A lot comes through as the remnants of original sounds – “gh” vs. “ch” etc.

American English already alters some of the carry-overs – “color” for “colour” and other “or” for “our” words.

The majority of silent letters were pronounced at one time. For instance, “eye” was pronounced (roughly) “e-yuh” back in Middle English. “Knight,” was pronounced “k-nicht” in Old English (ch = German “ach”).

There are a few cases where a word started out silent (the “t” in “often,” the “or” in “comfortable,” the “c” in “victuals”*). These were often due to mistranslations by the French scribes after the Norman invasion (a lot of English spelling quirks can be blamed on their mistakes). There was a tendency as literacy spread to add silent letters of this nature to the pronunciation.
*The Beverly Hillbillies got the pronunciation of that right: “vittles.”

I heard too that people at one time actually say guh nat and ka nock. I find that weird

But silent “e” is a useful letter

It can turn a plan into a plane

Turn a man into a mane

Well you get the idea

He-e-e-ey, yo-o-ou gu-uys!

Sorry…Electric Company flashback.

Incidentally, a little PBS trivia: Tom Lehrer wrote and performed the Silent E song (which I have the MP3 of on my hard drive).

I remember from a Shakespeare class that one of the reasons for some of the silent letters (is that enough qualifiers?) is that printing arrived in England about a generation before a major shift in pronunciations.

The first printers spelled roughly phoenetically, for the pronuciations of their day. But, the mass printing tended to standardise the spellings, compared to the much more limited distribution manuscripts got.

When there were shifts in pronunciation, the printed spellings didn’t change as quickly (although Shakespearian spelling was a lot more fluid than by today’s standards). So combinations like “gh” at the end of words, which once were pronounced, are sort of like fossil remnants of the earlier pronunciation.

[South Park]

I can’t read this. It has silent e’s.

[/South Park]

I understand what jti is trying to say about printing and the standardization of spelling. However <putting on devil’s advocate hat> why did certain words get standardized with silent letters while others did not? I’ve read loads of early 16th-century texts and I can assure you that spelling, even for very common words, was by no means standardized by that time. Many words, such as “debt,” could have been spelled without the silent letters (“dett” is a common spelling for the word). And there are other words which don’t have silent letters now which often did in the 16th century (most commonly, this resulted from unnecessary doubling of letters). I think the whole problem of silent letters in words is a lot more complicated than pointing to simple factors like changes in pronunciation.

Caxton, William
The first English printer, born possibly in Tenterden, in the Weald of Kent, SE England, UK. He was trained in London as a cloth merchant, and lived in Bruges (1441–70). In Cologne he probably learned the art of printing (1471–2), and soon after printed the first book in English, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1475). About the end of 1476 he set up his wooden press at Westminster, and produced the Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (1477), the first book printed in England.

The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © 1999, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved
–Caxton printed a bunch of stuff in the vernacular before there was a consensus in spelling. He can be blamed for some of the beginning problems in English spelling.
You might also look up a fellow named Wynkyn de Worde.