Monday, May 29, 2006

Silent Letters

Q. Why is the letter -L- silent in words such as salmon and solder?

In those two cases, the English spelling originally did not have an -l-, so there was no such letter to pronounce. The fish was spelled samoun, and the fusible alloy was spelled soudur. In the 18th century, our friends the hypercorrectionists decided that these and other words should show their Latin origins. Salmo was Latin for the fish, and solidus was Latin for the joining agent, so doesn’t it make perfect sense to graft an -l- into the English words? Not really. The spelling was forcibly changed, but the original pronunciation lived on.

The silent L is often followed by one of 4 letters: D as in could, should, would, and solder; F as in behalf, calf and half; K as in balk, caulk, chalk, stalk, talk, and walk; and M as in balm, calm, embalm, napalm, palm, psalm, qualm, and salmon.

The 18th century meddlers threw in other letters as well as they gave a nod to classical origins. A vivid example is the word dette. It was efficiently phonetic, but they decided that since it came from the Latin debitum, it should have a “b” to acknowledge the origin: debt. Doute was not allowed to stand since in Latin it was dubitum; so it became doubt. And the word subtle reflected the fact that in Latin it was subtilis, so the English sutill had to go.

All this makes about as much sense as bemoaning the fact that humans no longer sport their ancestors’ gills.

Another class of silent letters owes its existence to a quirk of history. In the Middle English period, pronunciation changes began to occur rapidly. Without interference, spelling would have raced to keep up. But in 1474, having set up shop in England, William Caxton printed the first book in English. As he and other printers began to print and sell copies, older versions of spelling were chiseled in stone, and soon there was a serious discrepancy between the way many words were said and the way those words were spelled.

The silent -e- on the end of so many words serves a limited purpose in our day. Some would make more sense as som. But once upon a time (tim), some was pronounced som-eh. So came, done, phone, barge, gone, and a host of other words now carry a largely unneeded letter.

The same thing happened with -kn-. A gentle knight was once a gentleh kanicht. So know, knife, knock, knee, knell, knickers, knit, knob, knot and others of that ilk would have lost that initial -k- if printing hadn’t interfered. And as we just saw with the word knight, the -gh- sequence is often unpronounced, as in ought, taught, drought, dough, and many others.

So we have a dichotomous reality: in some cases, people should have kept their hands off spelling; in other cases, someone should have interfered.

NOTE: reader Bob Hageman points out that today the -E- at the end of a word sometimes designates the preceding vowel as a long vowel, as in name, game, blame, and so on. I stand corrected; that's something I forgot to add. I was singlemindedly thinking about English before the Great Vowel Shift, when short vowels were the norm, and the terminal -E- was pronounced with something close to a schwa sound. On the other hand, today a number of words ending in -E- do not sport long vowels: one, done, gone, none, some, etc.


Blogger Scott L said...

The L is only silent in the US and Canadian regions in the case of 'sodder' if you go to Europe, Australia/NZ etc it is pronounced 'soulda'

As in

7:00 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

Good point, Scott. I'm writing primarily for an American audience, so sometimes my answers will seem rather insular.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

In the South the rules are a little different. We don't pronounce the L in behalf, calf, half, could, would, salmon, solder, etc., but we DO pronounce the L in balk, caulk, chalk, walk, talk, psalm, embalm, palm, qualm, balm etc. I'd actually never heard of a "silent L" rule until I dated a girl from St. Louis a few years back!

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"All this makes about as much sense as bemoaning the fact that humans no longer sport their ancestors’ gills."

Well put. And perfectly true, if you only consider the language as a method of conveying information.

But we overlook the universal need to use the language as a calculating tool. That is, to follow logically from one verbal statement to another with precision and confidence to a conclusion. The ability of the language to support this vital operation is diminished as the underlying syntax and structural elements are obscured and removed. Eventually the language ceases to function as an efficient calculus.

You have only to listen carefully to someone as they argue, or "think something through", to see how important this is.

-mark crane :-)

12:22 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

I would observe that English has supported this function even though it went from a synthetic structure to an analytic structure -- a move as radical as a sex-change operation. This is a language with over 1,500 years of nothing but change, yet it still supports higher mental functioning as well as homely communication.

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

In reference to Scott L's post, Americans, at least in the Philadelphia area, do pronounce the -l- in mold, told, bold, sold, soldier but not solder and salmon. It all depends on the etymology and what happened to the word previously.

Great article, by the way. I consider myself an aspiring linguist and this was very interesting. A person at work (a restaurant) the other day was asking about the silent -l- in salmon and it got me thinking.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Ann said...

I find it helpful to include spellings from the languages of origin, because it can someone figure out what an unfamiliar word means. If one is familiar with Greek or Latin (roots) it helps to figure out the meaning of borrowed words in English.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got to this page as a result of a Google search for the origin(s) of the word caulk. Whether or not the L is silent or not is immaterial for my purposes. I wondered whether the pronunciation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland (at least by old-timers) is cork. For instance, someone (like Frederick Douglass) whose job at one time was to caulk sailing vessels, would be called a corker here (and maybe also in Baltimore); his job would have been to cork between the planks. Some in the area apparently do retain at least some remnants of an older English speech, but cork for caulk seems pretty extreme. Do you know why this modification happened? At least when researching African African Army and Navy men from one county (Kent) during the Civil War, my awareness of the caulk/cork situation stood me in good stead. When I came across USCT soldier with the surname Cork, I was pretty sure he was really of the Caulk family, free blacks long before the Civil War (and entered the name Caulk as an alternate in my database page for him. When he enlisted (in 1863 or 1864), he very likely was illiterate, didn't know how to spell his name, and simply stated his name to a white junior officer, who enrolled the man as Cork because that's the way the name sounded to him.

12:52 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Sheehan said...

Interesting search on your part. I suggest posting an inquiry on the American Dialect Society's bulletin board. Use this address:

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. After 20 years of marriage, hubby and I discovered I say the "l" and he doesn't in words like calm, palm, embalm, napalm, etc. Weird that we never really noticed before.

2:39 PM  

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