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Silent alphabet

Phonics is the basis for a national exam in the UK assessing reading competency among the young; fail, and students are remedial readers, regardless of their actual competency in reading.

Thinking about the sounds letters make, I started to wonder if there are any letters of the alphabet which are *never* silent, or if the entire alphabet could be "said" by saying nothing at all....

I'm hardly the first person to try making an alphabet out of this online. I don't pronounce all the words the same as some of those who've tried this exercise, so am not convinced by those in brackets, although they're starting places. * mark words disagreed with by commenters.

A *logically
B thumb
C *chthonic, muscle
D *Wednesday, bridge
E are
F halfpenny
G thorough
H shepherd
I maize
J marijuana
K knight
L half
M mnemonic
N Autumn
O colonel
P receipt
Q lacquer
R [February]
S island
T subtle often
U tongue
W write
X faux
Y [mayor]
Z rendezvous

In short: the phonics alphabet *could* be largely pronounced through silence, with just a couple of letters left to say any other way....

Done with some insights from this site, this one and this one.



( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 11th, 2013 06:05 am (UTC)
The T in subtle isn't silent! Unless there's a pronunciation I'm unaware of...

Also I'm pretty sure there are proper names, at least, with a silent V -- Abergevenny was the first one I thought of.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:39 pm (UTC)
Yes, my logic failed me in the wee hours.
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:35 pm (UTC)
You're right. My logic failed me in the middle of the night. Does "often" work for you?
Sep. 11th, 2013 06:39 am (UTC)
For R, how about lustre or lucre? It depends on local accent, but many of these do.
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:37 pm (UTC)
As Americans largely speak rhotically, I pronounce both of those rs. Still, the important part is whether or not you have to audibly verbalize that letter of the alphabet, and clear neither of us do on some grounds or other.
Sep. 11th, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
If you use "Harvard", at least most Americans will get the joke...
(no subject) - gummitch - Sep. 11th, 2013 06:46 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:40 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2013 07:53 am (UTC)
I pronounce both 'c's in 'chthonic' (as does the OED) but the Merriam Webster online does not - possibly a transatlantic difference? As del_c says, there are many silent 'r's in the non-rhotic accents of English.

For a silent Y, how about something like 'stayed'?
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:37 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:39 pm (UTC)
Now you're talking!
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:40 pm (UTC)
Or not talking.
Sep. 11th, 2013 09:22 am (UTC)
I hated phonics when I was a child. I remember being most put out when I had to put down the book I was reading in order to prove that I was able to read by reciting the alphabet in phonics. I annoyed the teacher by interspersing each letter with a comment about how pointless it was. We got as far as D.
Sep. 11th, 2013 09:23 am (UTC)
I was a precocious little sod when I was 7.
Sep. 11th, 2013 09:56 am (UTC)
In my accent, the 'a' in 'logically' isn't silent, but the second one in 'January' is.

The 'h' in 'shepherd' is silent.

To me, the 'j' in 'marijuana' isn't silent - but it has the value it has in Spanish, not English. I'm struggling to think of an English word with a wholly silent 'j'.

I agree with that there are proper names with silent 'v's, but I don't think 'Abergavenny' is one; I'd have picked 'Milngavie'. Relatedly, the 'z' in 'Culzean', 'Dalziel', 'Menzies', etc is silent.
Sep. 11th, 2013 12:38 pm (UTC)
I'm glad we can both achieve silent a, if not through the same means.

The z in rendezvous has the same origin problems that marijuana does for you.
Sep. 11th, 2013 01:45 pm (UTC)
I don't quite follow: what are the origin problems with the 'z' in 'rendezvous'?

Digraphs make it all more complicated. I'd be inclined to think of 'dg' in 'bridge' as a different sound to either 'd' or 'g', for instance, but I may be overthinking it.
Sep. 11th, 2013 06:45 pm (UTC)
dg is definitely a distinct consonant, phoenetic alphabets agree with you!

Some people pronounce the 'zzz' in rendez-vous. This might vary by location, or, where I come from, class.
Sep. 11th, 2013 09:24 pm (UTC)
"Rendezvous", "faux", "mnemonic" and "marijuana" are all resorting to other languages that have different orthography from English. Either the letters are silent in that language, or they have sounds that English speakers don't reproduce very well.

The French used to spell the silent "s" in "hostel", "hospital", "forest", etc. until the Academie Francaise took the esses out, temporarily replacing them with a circumflex over the preceding vowel to mark the missing letter. Some time in the previous century the Academie proposed getting rid of the circumflexes, as the esses had been gone long enough, but the French have become attached to their circumflexes, so they get to stay, for now at least.
Sep. 12th, 2013 08:28 am (UTC)
Ah, OK. It's a more general case, then. I was thinking that 'the origin problem' meant 'a word where most English speakers don't pronounce a letter that is pronounced in the origin language, and where I follow the origin language', as in 'marijuana'. 'Rendezvous' didn't seem to fit, as at least a good number of French and English speakers don't pronounce the 'z' (caveat on the French speakers because I'm not familiar with lots of the non-France dialects).

I knew about the silent 's', and had got as far as wondering when the 'z' in 'rendez' would last have been pronounced in standard French. Villon's poetry looks as if it ought to have a lot more pronounced consonants in it than modern French, for example, but I've never heard it read aloud.
Sep. 11th, 2013 06:51 pm (UTC)
The "a" in "logically" isn't silent in my accent either, but it's not actually an "a", it's the "uh" sound called a shwa. In fact an awful lot of letters in English (certainly in British English) are pronounced the same. For example the middle syllable of "separate" and "desperate" are pronounced alike, which is probably why so many people have problems with spelling.
Sep. 11th, 2013 01:42 pm (UTC)
This may prove instructive! (Needs sound.)

Edited at 2013-09-11 01:44 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2013 06:44 pm (UTC)
I think the J in marijuana isn't silent. It modulates the following sounds, at least?
Sep. 11th, 2013 08:47 pm (UTC)
Google "dearest creature in creation" to study English prononciation.
Sep. 12th, 2013 07:06 pm (UTC)
Many thanks for posting the link. I'm amazed by two things: 1) that anyone could be so cleaver as to write it and 2) that I can read it. How does anyone ever learn this language? But, even so, I don't understand some of his rhymes, e.g., via & choir, food & would, and (especially, since I'm from that state) [succour,] four & Arkansas.
Sep. 13th, 2013 01:45 am (UTC)
Personally my rules for what counts as a "silent letter" are very strict. For example, I tell my students that the E in "cute" is not itself pronounced, but it provides information about how the U before it is pronounced, which is why the word differs from "cut". (That's why I like that you chose "are" for E, because the E in "are" doesn't add anything that "ar" doesn't already have, unlike hat/hate, sit/site, etc.) (It is also why I fucking HATE HATE HATE the "ghoti" meme, just detest it. English spelling is often ridiculous, but "ghoti" simply canNOT be "fish" in any dialect -- since it breaks very strongly entrenched rules about when, e.g., "ti" makes a "sh" sound -- and it's disingenuous to claim that it can.)

I'm not crazy about the "bridge" example for D, since the DG digraph in English shows us something that G itself can't (both "brig" and "brige" would be misleading about their own pronunciation, at least to a NA'n reader; I guess the UK examples of "frig" and "veg" prove that they're more comfortable with unadorned soft G's than we are? I've never liked either of those words on the page, but I guess this isn't about what I like!).

"Mayor" seems like a terrible example to me. Maybe the person who submitted it spoke a Southern U.S. dialect that treats it as a homophone of "mare", but I definitely don't -- it's always two distinct syllables for me, and the thing in the middle is pure Y. You might make a slightly better case with "prayer", which I pronounce the same as the first syllable in "prairie", and which I would pronounce differently if I were talking about a person praying, a pray-er. Are there UK dialects in which "mayor" is more "meh" than "meyah"?

I wouldn't call "faux" an English word, since I don't know that I've ever heard anyone say it (by itself) in an English sentence. "Faux pas," though, I think has been partially domesticated.

Like an earlier commenter, I don't consider schwas silent, and -ally adverbs generally have schwas for me. How about the old-fashioned spellings of aeon or mediaeval for A?

And now I'm ending on what I recognize is a slightly crazy note, but I think of the N's and B's in autumn, damn, condemn, dumb, thumb, etc., as lengthening the M's before them. I might just be imagining it, but I do think "damn" and "dam" actually sound subtly different to me. True, neither of them has an N sound as such, and at normal conversation speed that difference probably drops to nothing, but if I'm reading poetry or something I will linger a bit on the final consonant of a word if there's a "silent" letter following it.

Sep. 13th, 2013 02:43 am (UTC)
I think what you are talking about is phonemic awareness-- the individual sounds letters can make. In terms of reading instruction (and presumably what British children are assessed on), phonics is the relationships between combinations of letters and sounds, so all your examples mentioned above would be instructive as to when a letter can be silent. Phonemic awareness and phonics are fundamental components of early reading instruction, but must be taught along with fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )