Why have the dump sound? [silent letters]

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thoaimedic

Member
Vietnam
Dear all,
I wonder why there has some dump sound, for ex: sword (w is dump), climb (b is dump). Can we use phonology to explain this? Thank you very much indeed!
 
  • Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    I am not certain I understand what you mean by "dump".

    Are you thinking of dumb meaning "silent, not heard"? Or do you mean something else?

    Oh! I almost forgot.
    Welcome. :)
     

    thoaimedic

    Member
    Vietnam
    Sorry indeed, I type the wrong word! Yes, I mean that the dumb sound of the letter (for ex: sword), I wonder why that letter is dumb, can we explain by phonology? Once again thank you very much!
     

    JulianStuart

    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    The word is "silent" when you refer to letters that are not pronounced. Dumb is not used to describe these letters.
    Etymology is generally a good place to start if you are researching why they are not pronounced today - often they used to be pronounced, or they are derived from words in another language or dialect in which they were pronounced.
     

    Valvs

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Here is what the Wikipedia article on Silent Letters tells us:

    Silent letters arise in several ways:

    • Pronunciation changes occurring without a spelling change. The digraph <gh> was pronounced [x] in Old English 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 <th> in asthma, silent <t> in Christmas. Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial <ps> 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.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, broadly speaking, English has standardized spelling: this makes reading easier. If everyone spelt words as they pronounced them, each word would have at least a dozen different spellings, making reading more difficult.

    This standardized spelling often looks back to the (real or sometimes imagined) origins of the word.

    The problem with this standardized spelling, especially when influenced by notions of etymology, is that the spelling does not keep up with the way people speak. For example, only a small minority of English speakers now pronounce the gh in light.
     
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    thoaimedic

    Member
    Vietnam
    Hi all,
    Thanks Cagey, Relic5.2, JulianStuart,Se16teddy and especially Valvs for your kindly reply! There are so many silent letters in English, but can we make a list for some common words (e.g climb, sword, hour, Houston...) so that we will not confuse the pronunciation? Is this idea possible? Thank you!
     

    Albert Schlef

    Senior Member
    Hebrew
    Here is what the Wikipedia article on Silent Letters tells us:

    Silent letters arise in several ways:
    [...]
    • Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing silent letters e.g. silent <th> in asthma, silent <t> in Christmas. Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial <ps> in psychology and <mn> in mnemonic
    So, as I understand it, the p in psychology is silent to simplify a "cluster of consonants" and make it easier to utter.

    But why, then, no such simplification occurs in gazillion other English words? (blight, price, dweeb, etc etc etc)
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Different languages have different rules about what combinations of letters are permissible. As a rule of English pronunciation (phonology) ps never occurs at the beginning of the word; but some other consonant clusters are permitted at the beginning of a word. Greek does have ps at the beginning of the word - hence spellings such as psychology.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    So, as I understand it, the p in psychology is silent to simplify a "cluster of consonants" and make it easier to utter.

    But why, then, no such simplification occurs in gazillion other English words? (blight, price, dweeb, etc etc etc)
    Blight, price and dweeb are easy for English speakers to pronounce. They couldn't be more simple.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    So, as I understand it, the p in psychology is silent to simplify a "cluster of consonants" and make it easier to utter.
    No. The "p" was not created in English.

    This "p" is because the word comes from an ancient greek word ("psykhe") through a Latin word ("psychologia"). For the last 2000 years, ancient Greek and ancient Latin are used in medicine, law, and science in many European countries. For that reason, many medical and scientific words in English are copies of ancient Greek and Latin words.

    Words that start with a silent P are almost always from ancient Greek, where it was pronounced.
     
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    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    Many words change in pronunciation over a long time (hundreds of years). But they are still spelled the same. So "blight" has a silent "gh" in modern English, but originally that "gh" was pronounced.

    But why, then, no such simplification occurs in gazillion other English words? (blight, price, dweeb, etc etc etc)
    I am sure that some people have attempted to simplify English. But they failed, because the public would not co-operate. English is not "designed". No-one is in charge of English. No-one can force everyone to write in a different way.

    Back in the 1950s, the leader of China succeeded in simplifying the spelling of Chinese. The official language now uses "simplified characters". But that leader (Mao Tse Tung) was a ruthless dictator, who controlled China with an iron fist. In most countries, the people would not agree to change.

    And this change only happened in China, where Mao controlled things. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, millions of people speak the same language but do not use the simplified writing, even in 2018.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Since sword and climb were referred to in the opening post, I'll just say a few words about them.

    Sword is a case of a silent <w> because of pronunciation change. It used to be pronounced in the past, and when the pronunciation changed, we didn't change the spelling. This is true of the <w> in answer as well; the -swer in the word means swear (where we still pronounce the <w>. We can use the same explanation for the silent <w> in two; related words twin and twain still have the <w> pronounced.

    Climb never had the <b> pronounced. However, there were other words like lamb that had the final <b> pronounced; the pronunciation was simplified, but not the spelling, and people came to associate a final <mb> with the /m/ sound, and some words ending with /m/ in pronunciation began to be spelt with <mb>. Today, it's safe to say that any English word ending with <mb> should be pronounced /m/ (thumb, womb, comb and of course dumb). (OK, there's an exception: iamb.)
     
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