From a young age we’re taught to sound out words, but the English language is filled with complicated quietness. Elementary school students have long wrestled with the mystery of silent w’s among their weekly spelling words while high school students have relied on autocorrect to spell “indict” and “acquiesce.” That’s because 60% of English words have at least one silent letter. More than half of the 26 letters in the English alphabet have the ability to live in words unpronounced. But why complicate language with letters that sit muted taking up space? What is the value in being seen but not heard?
“Kimberly is an excellent student but I wish she’d speak more in class.” This was the refrain of any elementary school teacher that held a parent-teacher conference with my mother. Some iteration of this feedback graced every comments section of my report cards. Despite the praise in the sentence’s first clause— “Kimberly is an excellent student” —the contraction, “but,” was a megaphone. “I wish she’d speak more.” [Apparently, I should speak more.] “Why won’t you speak more, Kimberly?” my mother would ask with concern on her face. I thought my grades spoke for themselves. But in a world of extroverts, straight A’s could not hush the inadequacy this little girl felt but could not find the words for.
Eighty percent of English words come from other languages, so its notorious silent letters find their genesis all around the world. The word “tsunami,” for example, tracks back to a Japanese word, with tsu meaning harbor and nami meaning wave. “Psychology,” with its silent p and h, comes from a combination of the Greek psychē, meaning soul, and logia, meaning reason. These silent letters are, in fact, not silent at all. They tell a distinct origin story, their presence altogether purposeful. A result of influences we cannot always see.
I stood in the middle of the stairs belting out the score from H.M.S Pinafore. I was the lead in the fifth-grade musical and the third-floor landing of my house was my practice stage. The acoustics let each note ricochet from wall to wall and surround me, letting me hear a voice I’d never known but was fully mine. Practicing the songs was like auditioning for the role I wanted to play in real life. Center stage. Confident. Free. I closed my eyes and let sounds rise from the deep and pour out, until the air itself was singing in my key and…
“Shhhhh. Kimmy, I’m on the phone.” My father waved his hand in disapproval before shutting his office door. Frozen in the middle of the staircase, I shut my mouth. Tried to tip toe down, minimizing the creaking beneath my feet. Daddy needed quiet. Often. Because he was working. Or watching the news. Or getting ready to take a nap. Or trying to hear himself think. Best to hum in the house. Wouldn’t want my voice to carry.
The silent “e” is perhaps the most infamous of the quiet bunch. It is largely a product of a linguistic movement starting in the 14th century called The Great Vowel Shift. Sparked by population migrations, war, and aristocratic over-pronunciation, the long vowel sound was introduced, marked by the e at the end of a word. While these e’s appear silent, their presence changes the pronunciation of a word. “Rob” becomes “robe,” “scrap” becomes “scrape” and “rid” becomes “ride,” all with the addition of an e you cannot hear. It lengthens the sound of a fellow vowel, adding meaning—making its mark without fanfare.
“Speak up. I can’t hear you, Kim,” Mrs. Smith would say as she turned from scribbling math problems on the blackboard. Her eyes would turn towards mine as twenty-three other sixth graders waited in anticipation, knowing well what came next. I’d mouth the answer to her question a second time. “Yes! That’s right. You always make me read your lips.” She’d smile, offering reassurance to the shy girl who consistently knew the answer but rarely shared it above a whisper. Mrs. Smith listened to the silence, heard my words before they had sound. In her classroom, volume was not a requirement to contribute. Because she knew that even quiet lips have something to say, holding answers others are waiting to hear.
So, what’s the purpose of the silent letter? Why not let our language be purely phonetic, sticking to the loud letters, the ones that speak audibly? What would be lost from dropping the “b” in “doubt” or the “w” in “wrong”? What would be missed if they were absent? So much of my life I’ve wondered the same. Quiet was deemed wrong for as long as I can remember; self-doubt has been a constant companion. But I no longer apologize for my quietness. I sit in it, let it make room for each one of my words. Because silence speaks in its own pronounced ways and has just as much power to set the rules of a conversation. To change the pace and disrupt. To invite pause and reflection. To let you know it is here—for those who are present enough to hear.
Kimberly Goode is a writer based in Seattle, WA. Her work has appeared in River Teeth, Crosscut, and South Seattle Emerald. When she is not creating, she enjoys listening to the songs of birds and the sounds of rain.