+ Why Does English Have All Those Silent Letters?

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More from David Crystal’s wonderful book, “The Fight for English”. 

Reformers began complaining, in the middle of the 16th century, that the language was full of “vices and corruptions”.  It wasn’t just the arrival of French spellings.  It was because of the mess made by well-intentioned people in their attempts to fix the language.

“The renewed interest in classical languages and cultures, which formed part of the ethos of the Renaissance, had introduced a new perspective into spelling: etymology.  Etymology is the study of the history of words, and there was a widespread view that words should show their history in the way they were spelled.

“These weren’t classicists showing off.  There was a general belief that it would help people if they could ‘see’ the original Latin in a Latin-derived word.”

And so: someone added b to the word  det (or dett, or dette) because the source in Latin was debitum.  So now we have “debt”.   Someone decided that peple needed an o, because it came from populum.  Now children have to learn “people” as a sight word.  Similarly an s was added to ile and iland, because the word in Latin is insula.  So we are burdened with “island”.

And those extra  e‘s.

Blame the printers who operated the new printing presses.  If a line of type was a bit too short on a page, well, just add an –e  to a few words; that would fill it out.  Conversely, if a line was too long: take out some e ‘s — then it would fit!

To be sure, many of the typesetters were foreign anyway, and would have had no inkling what was happening .  They were probably confused enough as it was.

But there was also widespread opposition in the 16th century to ‘too many letters’.  And so the extra consonant and final e in words like goode, sette, and hadde eventually died out.  Crystal says that within fifty years such spellings had almost disappeared: the First Folio of Shakespeare (1623) has 1,398 instances of had, but only one hadde.    

In a separate development, the letters  j  and  v  were introduced, making our 24 letter alphabet a 26 letter collection.  One could now write “avast” instead of “auast”; “ejectment” instead of “eiectment”.

And speaking of vacillating fashions in orthography (the writing out of words): in the late 17th century it became fashionable to capitalize the first letter of nouns, following a trend in Continental printing.  Jonathan Swift writes: In antient Time, as Story tells/The Saints would often leave their Cells…

But this only lasted a century or so. 

“The Fight for English”, David Crystal’s gentle, delightful and informative screed against language prescriptivists, is published by Oxford University Press, 2006.  ISBN 978-0-19-920764-0.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or         aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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