Why does English have so many silent letters?

angry woman gesticulating

You could be excused for thinking that much of English pronunciation was invented by a trickster god, one with a particularly cruel streak. After all, how else could we have come to a place where through doesn’t rhyme with though, enough doesn’t rhyme with lough, and cough doesn’t rhyme with hiccough? We’re happy to tell you that there was no trickster god involved: there are reasons for why things are the way they are. Read on, and we’ll explain one of the great mysteries of our language: why so many of the letters seem to be just sitting around doing no work.

man sitting in a chair looking confused
The first 'm' is silent

Some letters are silent in English because they are part of sound combinations that are so uncommon that English speakers ultimately resist pronouncing them. Our language is a glutton, and it has taken words from an enormous number of other languages. Since we have words borrowed from languages that have different sound patterns, this results in English speakers pronouncing the words differently than in their languages of origin.

That’s why the m is silent in mnemonic, a word meaning “assisting memory” or “relating to memory.” Mnemonic came to English from Greek through Latin during the 1600s, when many words of Classical origin were introduced by scholarly writers.

It is documented that the m was pronounced before the n as recently as the late 1800s, and has since dropped away.

There are very few words in English that begin with ¬mn, and most of them are rare words that share the ultimate Greek root of the word meaning “to remember,” including mneme (pronounced /NEE-mee/), mnestic , mnemotechnical, and the name of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne.

book of psalms
Silent 'p'

There are thousands of English words with Greek roots, and most of these begin in a manner that looks pretty reasonable to many users of English (think of words beginning with anti, like antipathy). However, there are others from Greek which begin with a pair (or more!) of consonants that English does not use so often. One of the more common cases of this is the combination ps, seen in words like psalm, psalter, and pseudo (which comes from the Greek word meaning “to lie” or “to cheat”).

Psychology and the words related to it are the most frequently encountered of these words, which are pronounced with an /s/ sound—the p is silent in English. In German and French, the p is pronounced, however, and sounded just before the s, and over a hundred years ago the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary made it known that he thought we should restore the /p/ in English pronunciation, too.

His recommendations were ignored.

pneumatic tubes
Another silent 'p'

Another silent p is found immediately before the letter n in words like pneumatic and pneumonia.

These words came to English through Latin from the Greek word meaning “wind,” “breath,” “air,” or “spirit,” pneumatic means “relating to or using air” (such as tires on a car) and pneumonia refers to a disease of the lungs. Most of the English words you come across that begin with pneu- are going to directly relate to air (especially in medical or scientific contexts), but every once in a while one will sneak in with a slightly different type of meaning, as with pneumatology ("the study of spiritual beings or phenomena").

For words spelled with this pattern, the p is still pronounced in modern French.

picture of yacht taken from front
Silent 'ch' and 'gh'

Yacht came to English from Dutch, and the Dutch pronounce the ch with a rasping sound from the back of the throat, a sound heard in German words like buch (“book”) and Scots words like loch (“lake”).

Linguists use the term velar fricative to describe this sound, with velar from the Latin word for “curtain” meaning the soft palate or the flap at the back of the roof of the mouth, and fricative from the Latin word meaning “to rub.” Since this sound isn’t part of conventional English phonetics today, the ch has become silent over time.

The same thing can be said for words that developed directly from Old English and are spelled with what is now a silent gh, like light, fright, night, and sight, which were originally pronounced with that raspy back-of-the-throat sound. The now-silent ch and gh in these words in fact represent the same former pronunciation, transcribed in different ways. In fact, the Dutch and German ancestors of sight and light and right were spelled with ch rather than gh.

molten landscape with cracks in the ground and lava showing through
Silent 'ch'

Perhaps the oddest-looking collection of consonants at the beginning of an English word is the strange chth in chthonic, pronounced /THON-ik/, which comes from the Greek word meaning “earth” or “world” and is a fancy way to say “relating to the underworld” or “infernal.”

In Greek mythology, it referred to the realm of the dead, where spirits would reside in the afterlife, overseen by Hades, king of the underworld (and the underworld itself was sometimes called Hades). Like the now-silent ch in yacht, the ch, originally produced as a rasping sound from the back of the throat, has vanished in modern English.

If you really like using this word, but think that it’s kind of weird that the first C gets all the attention while the C that comes at the end does all the actual work, you can instead use chthonian, which means the same thing.

woman with fancy shirt dancing confidently
Silent 'c'

Chutzpah was defined in jocular fashion by Leo Rosten in his 1968 book The Joys of Yiddish with this: “Chutzpah is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” Being a dictionary, we don’t really do jocular; our definition is “supreme self-confidence,” or “nerve, gall.”

One of the many words English has borrowed from Yiddish, chutzpah is spelled with the ch that is now usually pronounced as /h/, making the c silent. The ch stood for the rasping sound from the back of the throat that exists in many languages, but not English, so it has dropped away.

palm trees along city street
Silent 'L'

We mostly don’t hear the L in words like palm and calm, and this is also a pronunciation that has changed. The “dark” sound of the letter L is one that can change the sound of the vowel that comes before it as it melts into the m. This is why the vowel sounds are different in word pairs like calm and cat and talk and tack.

(If you want to hear the difference between a "light" and "dark" L, say the word lull. The initial /L/ is "light", pronounced at the front of the mouth, while the final /L/ is "dark", spoken by raising the back of the tongue slightly.)

This is the same process that causes the sound of L to become a vowel sound in some Cockney accents, when a word like trouble is pronounced /TRUH-boe/ or in some pronunciations of help that don’t have a clear L sound.

girl making loser sign on her forehead with fingers shaped like an l
Another silent 'L'

Yes, the L in should and would used to be pronounced (but no, you are not making a mistake in not pronouncing it now). These words would have rhymed with gold and told (consider how we pronounce shoulder and boulder). Accounts by language commentators from the 1500s show that these Ls were pronounced in refined speech, but then dropped during the following century.

It seems likely that could didn’t have the L in either spelling or pronunciation; notice that its root, can doesn’t have an L whereas shall and will (the roots of should and could) do. The thought is that the L in could was later added by analogy—rightly or wrongly—to make it better match with would and should.

man juggling knives
Silent 'k' and 'g'

The basic rule is: “word + time = change.” The initial kn or gn sounds in words like knife, knight, and gnaw were pronounced several hundred years ago. Over time, the sound clusters have simplified into the single /n/ sound that we know (ahem) today. There isn’t necessarily a reason or any logic attached to all of these changes; in fact, if the spellings of these words didn’t fossilize the original way that they were pronounced, we wouldn’t have any reason to think about this kind of phonetic change.

smiling woman wrapping presents
Silent 'w'

Once upon a time the W in words like wrap and write was pronounced. Today we don’t hear it, and this time the reason is partially anatomical and not just phonetic (when we say the reason you don’t hear this is anatomical it is because of the shape of your lips, and not of your ears; your ears are just fine).

When you make the /r/ sound in modern English, your lips protrude a bit (say “ruh”) just as they do when you pronounce a /w/ sound (say “wuh”). Since these two sounds are made in ways that have physically similar lip positions and sounds that are difficult to distinguish when you say one right after the other, they eventually merged together.

girl listens to a seashell at the beach
Silent 't' (mostly)

The /t/ in words like soften, hasten, and fasten was originally pronounced, after the -en was added to the words soft, haste, and fast. Listen is a bit different, since it comes from from the Middle English word listnen, and evidence suggests that Middle English speakers wouldn’t pronounce /t/ when it was stuck between /s/ and /n/. (This may seem like a lot of history for a simple spelling explainer, but isn’t it nice to know that people who spoke Middle English many hundreds of years ago had to wrestle with tricky silent letters as well?)

Is the t in these words always silent, though? The t in often is in fact sometimes pronounced. Like the others in this category, it had been pronounced initially, and, also like the others, we hear the /t/ in the word’s root oft, which is now archaic for most of the senses of often, but is still used in compound adjectives like oft-repeated and oft-quoted. Ofttimes and oftentimes also have that archaic flavor but are still in active use. After the -en suffix was added to oft, the /t/ fell away in pronunciation, but remained in the spelling.

But in this case, the /t/ came back via a spelling-influenced pronunciation in the 1600s, as both literacy and printing expanded rapidly in England. There is evidence that Queen Elizabeth herself did not pronounce the /t/, resulting in the establishment of the prestige pronunciation for often that remains to this day (although pronouncing the t in often is by now a standard choice).

woman holding a paper receipt
Silent letters added from Latin

An artificial evolution is visible in the silent letters of words like receipt, debt, and indict. These words entered English from French in the medieval period, but later scholars recognized their Latin origins and stuck in the missing p, b, and c, just to make the etymological relationship completely explicit. The way we pronounce these words to this day reflects their French heritage (while their spelling reflects their more distant Latin roots). Other silent letters that scholars have snuck in to help English show off its Latin roots include the b in doubt and the l in balm.