Silent Letters to People Who Don't Hear
The words of English are archeological finds, each containing faint clues of what was once there. There is no clear instruction for the untrained on how to read this information, but the evidence of change is plain. One obvious case of English’s past is silent letters.
Back when English was Old, let’s say between 500 and 800 in the year of oh my lord, the language began to be written down by the monks and clerics bringing Christianity to the regions that would become Anglecynn, Anglelond, Angeland, Engla-land, Englaland, and finally England. There was some writing of English that occurred before this time (Ruthwell Cross, for example), but runes were used instead of letters; the number of rune-based languages active today will tell you how successful that was.
It was the use of the Roman alphabet—the same one we use today, with a few less letters (no J, which as a Jason I always resent) and a few others we don’t use anymore—that gained traction. As they captured this spoken language into a written system, the clerics largely spelled the way the words sounded, with each letter representing a distinct sound. Knight, then, was said something like “ka-nikht.”
Then, as it does with all languages, time happens. As people spread out and expand, the way they speak, once made consistent from frequent interaction, starts to change. Most of us know that the working-class Latin used in the Roman Empire would transform into what is now French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian (among many others). The same has happened all over the world; the 6,000 active languages originated from a much smaller number. Without the common bond, one language developed into many. This is what happens at the biggest time scales, but plenty occurs to make for faster change, as well: invasions and advancements in technology bring new words and new ideas, for instance.
All of this change so far refers to spoken language, though. Writing changes almost always follows spoken changes (not the other way around), but at a much slower pace, and sometimes not at all. One result is words with letters that no longer match the way they sound. Our example of the word knight has origins as cniht, and then knecht before changing to its current form. These changes reflect an effort by contemporary writers to keep up with a changing pronunciation. By the time knight was to become pronounced “nite,” the printing press was invented, creating a lot more text a lot more quickly. Changes to spelling occurred less frequently. It was also not monitored anywhere—this was an age before dictionaries and standardization. All of this combines to create a situation where silent letters exist. Examples of this are everywhere in the language: honor, hope, knot, what, autumn, pneumonia, guitar, wrap, island, sign, Wednesday, muscle, comb, and talk among hundreds of others.
But there’s more, patient reader! Most of you willing to read this far know 1066 as the year of the linguistically famous Norman Invasion, which brought a lot of French to English’s Germanic heritage, particularly words related to government and society. English is notorious for its acceptance of new terms from other languages, so the Normans were just the first of many to donate words. So, some silent letters come because they are built into words we borrow: champagne, khaki, myrrh.
Other times, this happens on purpose. Ned Halley, from the Dictionary of Modern English Grammar: “As the influence of the Classical world was revived in the 15th century, scholars of English desired to remind their readers that most of the words in the language originated in Latin and Greek. To show off their knowledge that doubt, then spelled ‘dout’ because it came into medieval English via French doute, derived originally from Latin dubitare they added the b–and it stuck. In its way, it was a nationalistic gesture, reasserting the Classical origins of English over Dutch, French, German and Norse influences of the intervening millennium since Roman influence waned in Britain from the fifth century and Anglo-Saxon languages began to infiltrate.” Pathetic and gross, no?
All this is just the tiniest example of how words and language change over time. There are nifty occurrences like metanalysis, where a napron becomes an apron. There is pronunciation changing over time because it’s either easier to make the sounds given the position they start in—scant was once skamt, and thunner would become thunder, not because the sounds are inherently easier, but because the position of our speech organs as we say the word are better lined up and allow for the easiest pronunciation and distinction from other words. Too bad, because I much prefer hnutu to nut.
There’s more, lots more. Sometimes a word is borrowed, and then given back as something new. Sometimes pronunciation changes merely for status-related reasons: many times in history the dialect of a part of a country that was in power became the preferred way of speaking. Other times speakers bond together around an accent that unites them—looking your way, Lynn, Massachusetts. This is all to say nothing of more monumental changes in grammar, inflection, syntax, and areas of language that change over time, inevitably and always.
So who cares, right? That’s a fair question. Beyond linguistic curiosity, you may wonder if this whole discussion matters.
As you consider the massive amount of changes that a single word can undergo just in the course of a few hundred years, take a step back to consider how exponential those changes are sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and book by book. Yet we sometimes treat the written word as something locked in time. It is anything but. The written word is permanent as long as it is documented, but it is not eternal. Rather, it is a moment of time, a representation of ideas, usage, and context local to one writer in one place. Ideas and inspiration are what are eternal, not our language for sharing them.
So with this as my view, you may understand my concern when readers draw from documents and scripts, letters and laws and take them word by word into new contexts and the present day. I’m wary of any view that draws literally from anything, but especially content that is old enough to have gone through changes, because doing so ignores the fact that language and the context that inspired language changes so dramatically.
Regardless of inspiration or source, anything put into the form of a human and living language is not locked in time. Languages change because we change. I have no problem with a set of beliefs or way of living that is either drawn from the way things are or drawn from a place within us and around us disconnected from things at all. I have a major problem when those worlds come together because it doesn’t work. The logic falls apart, and the consequences are too severe.
Language is humanity: all of humanity’s greatness, all of humanity’s development, all of humanity’s tendencies. Our progress is not easily mapped as logical, but there is a logic in the resulting mess. We owe it to the ideas we hold dearest to embrace this mess and not take their origins as living words, but instead as a guide to living right in this world.
William Dion, ancient and modern language expert
Charles Barber, The English Language
Ned Halley, Dictionary of Modern English Grammar