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What Is a Silent Letter?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

A silent letter is basically a letter found in a word that is not actually pronounced when someone says that word aloud but is fundamental to properly spelling the word. These types of letters are fairly common in the English language, and can make learning to spell and read fairly troublesome for many people. New readers and writers have to learn where silent letters are found, so they can properly pronounce a word while reading it. A silent letter is typically only silent in certain situations, and may even shift from silent to pronounced depending on how a word changes.

There are a number of ways in which a silent letter can be found in a word, depending on the language in use and how different sounds are formed. These distinctions are largely academic, however, and the function of a silent letter often serves to modify the pronunciation of another letter within a word. As someone learns to read and write a language such as English, it is crucial that he or she learns to recognize these letters and understand how to properly utilize them in different words. In English, for example, many silent letters take the form of either an auxiliary letter or a dummy letter.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

An auxiliary letter is a type of silent letter used to form a digraph, which is a sound that cannot be created by a single letter or that is created through two letters in certain situations. Sounds expressed as “-ng” or “th-” are often seen as digraphs formed through a combination of two letters in which one may be seen as an auxiliary. A silent letter in English may also be referred to as a “dummy letter,” which is a letter not pronounced at all and often helps modify the sound of another letter. The silent “-e” at the end of many words like “lane” and “brine” is an example of this type of letter.

There are also some linguistic situations in which a letter may be a silent letter in certain words, while it is pronounced in other words formed in a similar or identical way. The letter “b” in the word “comb,” for example, is silent; however, the same arrangement of letters in “combine” results in the “b” being pronounced. This can also be seen in the “n” and the end of “condemn,” which becomes pronounced in “condemnation.” A silent letter may also result from double letters, or double sounds, like the second “f” in “cliff” or the second “c” in “clock.”

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