Silenc Mispeled

by Translation Guy on April 25, 2012

If English is a phonetic language, then how come there are so many silent letters? The written language is rife with them. I’ve marked out all the silent letters in this sentence to show how common they are, cropping up in text 60% of the time.

A silent letter is one that appears in print, but that don’t make a sound when that word is pronounced out loud. In English, letters are silent about out of seven times. In French and Danish, close to one third of letters in print are never sounded, 28% silent en Française, and 32% silent in Danish. Øj! That’s of lot of letters signifying nothing, and a frustration to second language learners in those languages.

Since one of the challenging aspects of learning a new language is pronunciation, the less phonetic the alphabet, the more difficult it is for the speaker to correctly sound out the words. Manas Karambelkar, Momo Miyazaki And Kenneth A. Robertsen of the Compenhagen Insitute of Interaction Design created Silenc, a project to retell the tales of Hans Christian Andersen with all silent letters red-lined right out for the convenience of English-as-a-second-language readers everywhere.

The three designers took a rose-colored look at silent letters. They asked, “how much of a language is silent? What does it look like when you take the silence out? Can we use processing code as a tool to answer these questions?

In their project, every silent letter got the “Scarlet Letter” treatment, printed in red. When viewed through a rose-colored looking glass, the silent scarlet letters are left out by the red filter, removing the silent letters from the readable text entirely.

While I can understand the ESL frustration, I’m not so sure it’s fair to write off a letter just because it isn’t always touting its own horn. They also serve who stand silently and wait. Because letters aren’t just bark. They’ve got bit too, heft, in the way they silently shape the word. Word shape is where the rubber hits the road, as we silently and unphonetically read. The risk is that in tossing out the silent ones, you’ll toss out a quick read in the process. We need the quiet ones too.

The pattern recognition skill we use to gloss a word by its shape is an ancient primate strength, predating language itself. So only natural that this pre-adaptive skill still shapes the shapes of the letters we use and choose for the written word. This glossing skill is so basic that even baboons can do it, as posted recently on this blog, which means that this patterning skill we use was ready when written words came along, and had a lot to do with the way those words were written.  Spellings that survive are the fittest by hook or crook, and the winners use every trick in the book, including non-language primate pattern preference to get their gloss.


  1. Liz says:

    This is a problem that I encountered many times while I was studying abroad in Spain. My speaking parters that I would practice Spanish with while they practiced their English would ask for help with pronunciation. With Spanish, you just sound it out. We had a 20 minute conversation where I tried to explain the word tie-dye to them before realizing they had been asking about the world tidy. It is very hard to explain why the English language is pronounced the way it is to learners!

  2. It all boils down to pattern recognition. Some will identify patterns quicker than others. Heck, a baboon can do it!

  3. Lazar says:

    The word “surface” in the image has the ending “e” red. To me, omitting this changing the way the “c” is read. Wouldn’t omitting many of these silent letters change the way the Hans Christian Anderson’s stories are interpretted?

    • Ken says:

      I was wondering that too.

  4. Yes, I would be lost without the silent letters. I can see learning a new language (written) can be difficult if not frustrating with many silent letters thrown in the mix, but I can’t imagine reading english without them.

  5. Tatijana says:

    I agree, there seems to be a lot of silent and unneeded letters in many english words. But what of the eastern european languages that have 5 constanants in a row? I don’t recognize any patterns there.

    • Ken says:

      No word on which language is the most silent-lettered of them all. Interesting to know.

  6. Neat study using the red filter. Reminds me of some of those hidden messages that my kids get on toys or cereal boxes. Even I enjoy looking through the little red piece of plastic to see what is there.

    • Ken says:

      I guess the nice thing about Rose-colored glasses is what you don’t see.

  7. ESL students are frustrated in any language. Some people not so much, but many just don’t put in the effort necessary to learn a new language as quickly as they could which leads to frustration.

  8. It’s not just the ESL, my own kids struggle with spelling (grades 1 and 3). Many times there are missing letters when we practice new words and it takes time for them to remember which words have the lilent letters.

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