01 June 2009

A case for dropping silent letters from the English Language

We know about silent letters in the English language. Silent letters have been there in certain words for centuries and if we do not act quickly will continue to remain likewise. Why are they there? I do think that the silent letters are there because no one bothered to take them off!

What use are they to us? I dare say nothing! On the contrary, they are such impediments to learning for kids! For example,it does take a humongous effort on the part of a teacher to make a first grader understand why ‘honest’ is not spelled as ‘onest’. Not the kids alone, even adults get foxed by letters lurking in shadows of the spellings. Take the example of ‘pteridophyte’. As it is, this one is such a terrifying word to spell. On top of it we are told that the ‘p’ is silent here! You don’t like this, do you? So let’s get at the bottom of this!
From where have these silent words cropped up in the first place? Wiki says silent letters arise in several ways and I quote:

-Pronunciation changes occurring without a spelling change. The spelling was in Old English pronounced /x/ in such words as light.
-Sound distinctions from foreign languages may be lost, as with the distinction between smooth rho (ρ) and roughly aspirated rho (ῥ) in Ancient Greek, represented by (r) and (rh) in Latin, but merged to the same [r] in English. Similarly with (f) / (ph), the latter from Greek phi.
-Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing silent letters e.g. silent in asthma, silent (t) in Christmas. Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial in psychology and (mn)in mnemonic.
-Occasionally, spurious letters are consciously inserted in spelling. The 'b' in debt and doubt was inserted to reflect Latin cognates like debit and dubitable.

Barring the fourth point, all the above reasons appear to be a burden of legacy.
But, is ‘because they are there’ – a la George Mallory’s famous quote – a good enough reason for the silent letters to stay? How does the language benefit if we spell pneumonia as pneumonia and not as neumonia? (or as a still friendlier, numonia?) Some would argue about purity and etymology. But what good is purity if learning is so traumatic to the children? For argument sake if we were to side with the etymologist theory, an example from in American English should settle matters. We know that in American English most words with a combination of ‘ou’ have been simplified to ‘o’; for example ‘colour’ has been replaced by ‘color’, ‘harbour’ has been replaced by ‘harbor’ etc. The new spellings agree with the pronunciation and keeps everyone happy, especially the kids; this, inspite of color’s ‘etymology’. Let us read color’s etymology from Merriam-Webster:

Etymology: Middle English colour , from Anglo-French, from Latin color; akin to Latin celare to conceal

If colour can be happily spelt as color, inspite of its etymology, why can’t mnemonics be spelt as nemonics with as much alacrity? Adam Robinson, in his book, Word Smart says that ‘Graders are taught to remember the spelling of arithmetic by using the following mnemonics: A Rat In The House Might Eat Tom’s Ice Cream’ (author’s italics) What an irony! The spelling of mnemonic would need a special type of mnemonic to get the spelling across to the kids!

Another issue is of Proper nouns with silent letters. Take the case of Ptolemy. We know he was a great Roman mathematician living in ancient Egypt. But does his greatness diminish if we spell his name in the same manner as we pronounce it? Tolemy, for example? I believe, Proper nouns should be spelt the way they are pronounced. In India, Rishikesh is a religious place of the Hindus. And Hrishikesh was an iconic director in Bollywood. Hrishikesh, is pronounced as Rishikesh but is spelt as Hrishikesh. This, is in keeping with the word’s Sanskrit origins. But the spelling of Rishikesh does just fine for the holy place and in no way detracts the religiosity of the place. So why not spell director Hrishikesh’s name as Rishikesh?
I think, as a first step we need to drop silent letters from Proper Nouns. That will be a first good step. Later, as the acceptability grows, we can move to other words where there are hidden no-sounds. We would really do our kids a big favour (or favor, if you will?)

I would let the homophones alone, however. It is easier to learn ‘be’ and ‘bee’ as separate words with different spellings than to learn them as separate words with same spellings. (Homophones are two or more words pronounced alike but are different in meaning or spelling, for example, ‘to’, ‘too’ and ‘two’). It may be good play of words,for example, as in can can , but will be confusing to the kids.

Let’s not be silent anymore on silent letters.

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