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Words do not have neat one-to-one mappings between languages. You do not need to be a very advanced language learner to be aware of that phenomenon, so it’s surprising how often this seems to trip up the unwitting translator. Read More
A wasted letter, also known as a silent letter, refers to a letter within a word which does not contribute to the sound or pronunciation of that word, for example the ‘n’ in ‘autumn’ and the ‘k’ in ‘know’. So, why do we spell ‘colour’ with a wasted ‘u’ when the American equivalent is spelt ‘color’? How did wasted letters arise and are they completely redundant?
Wasted letters can cause confusion for non-native speakers learning the English language, as well as for native speakers coming across new vocabulary, since they promote problems in assuming the pronunciation of words based on spellings. According to Carney, wasted letters can be categorised as auxiliary letters or dummy letters. Auxiliary letters refer to those whereby two wasted letters combine to make a single phoneme, for example, the ‘gh’ in ‘enough’. Dummy letters refer to a wasted letter which is not associated with preceding or following letters such as, the ‘s’ in ‘island’.
Often, the reasons given for wasted letters are historical. For example, Chaucer spelt knife ‘knyf’ with the pronunciation of the ‘k’. Similarly, they often have Greek origins; ‘mnemonic’ (from the Greek ‘mimn’ meaning ‘to remember’) and ‘psychology’ (from the Greek ‘psyche’ meaning ‘soul’). A further influence from history was the insertion of wasted letters in order to reflect the equivalent words, such as the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ was included to reflect the Latin corresponding word ‘debitum’ despite there being a more straightforward French equivalent: ‘dette’. Sometimes, wasted letters even occur due to the sound of the word and the spelling being borrowed from another language; ‘khaki’ was borrowed from British India.
Linguistically, wasted letters arguably arise in numerous ways; such as by the change in sound without a change in spelling (e.g., the ‘g’ in ‘light’ was originally pronounced as an ‘x’), the simplification of clusters of consonants, the loss of sound distinctions from foreign languages and the sound combination being too difficult to say (e.g., handkerchief).
A further important linguistic reason for wasted letters is that they allow homophones to be distinguished; for example, the differentiation of words such as ‘whole’ and ‘hole’, ‘hour’ and ‘our’. They also indicate the presence of long vowels (the differences between ‘rid’ and ‘ride’) and ‘hard’ consonants, (‘guest’ and ‘gest’). Similarly, some wasted letters provide guidance in the stress of a word; the ‘fe’ in ‘giraffe’ indicates second-syllable stress, whereas if it were to be spelt ‘giraf’, this may indicate initial-stress. Wasted letters also allow different forms of the same word to be connected; ‘resign’ with a silent ‘g’ is taken from ‘resignation’. Finally, some wasted letters provide an understanding of the meaning of a word; the word ‘vineyard’ indicates ‘vines’, as opposed to excluding the ‘e’ (‘vinyard’).
So why do Americans spell ‘colour’ and ‘behaviour’ without a ‘u’? It isn’t because they are lazy or inefficient. It was a conscious spelling reform (amongst many others – not all of which were accepted) suggested by an early American teacher, Noah Webster, with the rational reasoning that the ‘u’ does not affect pronunciation so should be omitted, making learning spelling easier. Wasted letters may appear to complicate the English language, and be somewhat frustrating to learners of the language; however, they succeed in making our English language a little more unique and interesting.
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