I was thinking about two particular words "Tsunami" and "gnarl". Both of them seems almost impossible to be pronounced by me (the ts and gn part). I guess this is because my tongue is not habituated with pronouncing such constructs. So I can keep "t" in "Tsunami" and "g" in "gnarl" pronouncing as "silent letters" in my utterance. Now the question arises how can I know if a letter in a word is silent or not? Is there any way to guess it if I have no dictionary in my hand at that moment?

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    Incidentally, some people do pronounce the "t" in "tsunami". Some people don't pronounce it, but believe that they do. – snailplane Feb 17 '13 at 8:06
  • @snailplane: That second group would presumably be the same people who believe they pronounce a T in prints, but not in prince. You're right some people pronounce the initial T in tsunami, but in practice I don't think anyone does in prints. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 17 '13 at 14:53
  • "tsunami" should not be considered, because it is really a Japanese word; we just use it in English as its a commonly known word worldwide. When pronounced by a native Japanese speaker, you will hear a "t" sound in "tsu", though a native English speaker (maybe westerners in general) would have to listen for it, since the "t" is weak compared to the "s" sound. – user485 Mar 5 '13 at 23:07
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    @user3169 You can make that argument, but I would say: "tsunami" entered English over a hundred years ago, can be found in many English language dictionaries, has undergone regularization, and is known by virtually all native speakers, some of whom don't know the word is from Japanese. Because of these traits, I feel it is best described as an English word borrowed from Japanese. – snailplane Mar 6 '13 at 0:49

In the general case, it is impossible to know for certain the mapping between graphical units — letters — and sounds in the English language. That is simply the way it is.

In the specific case, there is no English word that starts with /ts/ or /gn/, because that sequence cannot occur in that position in English. Therefore the first letter of each of those two pairs is always silent.

There are enough of these specific cases that a given native speaker stands an excellent chance of guessing the same pronunciation as some other native speaker will guess. And therefore this indeed a system to it all.

It just takes a very long time to learn if you are not born to it.

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  • Unless it's GNU... – Jim Feb 17 '13 at 4:47
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    I disagree with the no word begins with /ts/ premise. I've heard tsunami (/tsu.nami/), tzar (/tsa:/) "tsk" (/ˈtɪsk/) and even tsetse (/ˈtsɛ.tsɛ/) – Matt Feb 17 '13 at 6:26
  • @Matt It's definitely true that exceptions exist for some speakers some of the time, but not for most speakers. Similarly, in initial position /ks/ becomes /z/ (xenon, xylophone) and /ps/ becomes /s/ (psyche, psoriasis) for most speakers; these rules aren't absolute, and they can change over time, but at present exceptions aren't terribly common. – snailplane Mar 5 '13 at 20:26
  • @Matt What in the world is a tsa? – tchrist Mar 5 '13 at 23:57
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    @tchrist: In which case I don't know what you're talking about. You were the first person to mention "tsa" as a word on this thread. If you re-read you'll find that I said /tsa:/ (i.e. the pronunciation of "tsar") was a counterexample of a word that begins with a /ts/ sound. I never claimed that there was a word spelt t-s-a. – Matt Mar 6 '13 at 17:00

I have a list with words with silent letters from an old English textbook. I keep adding on them. While the classification is not exhaustive, it is giving you insight, because you can group as below. You also can do the same - make such a vocabulary list. I give few examples for each group.

--silent b words: lamb, climb, bomb
crumb, thumb, plumbing
debt, doubt

--silent g words: gnaw, diaphragm, phlegm
align, benign, sign

--silent gh words: high, eight, neighbor
delight, fright, tight
bough, though, caught

--silent h words: ghost, honest, hour
rheumatism, rhyme, rhythm

--silent k words: knee, knife, knack
knob, know, knock

--silent l words: balk, stalk, walk
calf, half, could

--silent n words: column, autumn, solemn

--silent p words: pseudo, psychologist, receipt

--silent w words: who, wrap, wrestle
write, wrong, wry

--other words with silent letters: handsome (d), vegetable (e), business(i), aisle (s), listen(t)

Note: 1) In general if a base word has a silent letter, its conjugates keep the letter silent, and conversely. Example: stalk->stalking
But there are some exceptions: Example: black (ck not silent), blackguard (ck is silent)
2) some words can be pronounced in both ways. Example: tsetse, calm (with l silent or not)
3) some words are quite unusual: corps (ps is silent), colonel (l silent with rhotacization)

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    For me, the 'ck' in "blackguard" is not quite silent. It turns into gemination on the 'g'. That is, the 'g' in "blackguard" is longer than that in "laggard". – Peter Shor Mar 5 '13 at 19:56
  • Possible, another example is damn/damnation which I found from Wikipedia, which calls these "inert letters". Thanks – Theta30 Mar 5 '13 at 20:21
  • @Peter Shor unless you can bring evidence to that, otherwise it is anecdotical evidence for me. Neither Oxford Dictionary or Thefreedictionary-though this has some weird non-IPA symbols, or Cambridge Dictionary of Pronunciation shows a long "g" (g:) – Theta30 Aug 11 '13 at 17:06

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