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.