Why are there silent letters in languages?

I understand that there may be not any reply to this question. But if there is one, I am curious.

Like in French: Je ne parle pas français.

Why is it not written simply as "pa" instead of "pas"? For example, in Italian is read every letter.

1 Answer 1


I assume that by "silent letter", you mean a letter that does not ever correlate with anything in pronunciation, though the s in pas is not silent by that standard (pas encore). The k of knight would be an example. The reason in that instance is that there used to be an actually-pronounced k in the word (knight was not the same as night), some time around the 18th century. Similarly, a number of words in Spanish have <h> which doesn't indicate anything about contemporary pronunciation. There used to be an h in hechar, but it was deleted (and then some dialects re-invented [h] from [x]).

In Italian, you don't really "read each letter". For example, ogni is pronounced [oɲi], and you don't first pronounce g then n. Instead, some of the rule of pronunciation involve sequences, so the sequence <gn> has a special rule, likewise <schi, sci>. Such rules of combination explain why in Swahili the single sounds ð,γ are spelled <dh, gh> – basically because there are more sounds in Swahili than can be directly represented with singly Latin letters. In Shona, they faced a similar problem but used an extended alphabet with phonetic symbols like <ɓ, ɗ, β>, but that was unpopular so they reformed the spelling system to use digraphs, d vs dh, v vs vh and so on. Another example of is the diacritic use of <n> in Yoruba which after a vowel represents nasalization of that vowel – it's thus any combination of vowel plus n, not just a specific vowel-plus-n combination. Hmong spelling likewise has a number of consonant letters at the ends of words, but those are not really consonants, they are tone-and-phonation diacritics.

The reason to not reform spelling to reflect every historical change is that people are generally very conservative about spelling, and they get offended when others don't write the same as them. I pronounce "cot" and "caught" the same, and I just had to learn two different spellings correlated with meaning and not pronunciation. The first vowel in economic often varies within a single speaker between [i] and [ɛ], and nobody wants to be forced into a pattern of chaotic spelling just because a word has two or more pronunciations. However, you do find marketplace-acceptance of alternative spellings such as lite, nite, rite which somewhat regularizes English spelling.

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    In addition, there are some letters present in French words that were never pronounced nor originally written, like the G in doigt and vingt and were added later to show the classical Latin word contained that G (digitus, viginti.)
    – jlliagre
    Oct 2, 2022 at 19:02
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    At one level, the answer to your question is "Because writing is not part of language, but an invented technology associated with language, and efficient representation of sounds is a property that has not always been important to those using writing".
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 2, 2022 at 20:52
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    @jlliagre: Indeed, the same thing has happened in English; for example, the <b> of debt and doubt was added at some point to reflect Classical Latin debitum and dubito, and was never pronounced. (One fun example is the <p> of ptarmigan, which was added due to an assumption that it came from Ancient Greek ptero-, which in fact it does not.)
    – ruakh
    Oct 2, 2022 at 23:25
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    Re: Spanish <h>: In some cases, such as huevo ("egg", from Latin ovum), the <h> is an innovation in Spanish, and not something that was ever pronounced. It was added during a time when <u> and <v> were a single letter, so the <h> served to make clear that it was pronounced like <uevo> and not like <vevo>. The same was done in French in words such as huile ("oil", from Latin oleum).
    – ruakh
    Oct 2, 2022 at 23:30
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    If spelling reflected pronunciation in English, it would be nigh impossible for me, a Southern American English speaker, to understand someone with a Cockney accent, even in text. And that Cockney person would probably have trouble understanding someone writing Singaporean English, and so on with every English dialect in the world.
    – Hearth
    Oct 3, 2022 at 4:06

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