8

Which of the first two letters on the word 'scent' is silent?

  • if 's' is silent, the word cent is pronounced like we pronounce 'scent'
  • if the 'c' is silent, the word is still pronounced the same, right?

So, which one of the letters is silent?

  • 1
    The same one as in science, I guess. Is there really any situation in which the answer to this question would actually matter? Or is there any way the answer to this question could actually be verified? In the following string of characters, I removed one: SRTWN. Did I remove a B, or did I remove an M? – oerkelens Sep 18 '14 at 8:34
  • For the correct pronunciation, it does not matter. However, it is still interesting that the c in scent may be regarded as silent, but not the s in scandal. – painfulenglish Sep 18 '14 at 9:11
  • Maybe the easiest is not to regard any of them as silent, the Zen way out of this question :) – oerkelens Sep 18 '14 at 9:17
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7

The "c" is silent when preceded by an "s" followed by an 'e' or an 'i' at the beginning of a word.
Found this on a site which had rules on silent letters. Authenticity is not known, but it sounds correct.

  • What would change if it was the s that was silent? Or if actually, neither of the two were silent? – oerkelens Sep 18 '14 at 8:59
  • Will need some expert advice on this one. Had 'c' not been silent, could it have added a 'k' sound to it ? like 's-k-ience', maybe ? – v kumar Sep 18 '14 at 9:04
  • Why? Normally, the c is pronounced as an s sound before an i, so why would that be different now? Is the second s in lass (or the one letter shorter word) pronounced or not? Is the first one? Are they both pronounced? And does it matter? – oerkelens Sep 18 '14 at 9:06
  • i thought more of words like, acute, actual, acrobat etc. – v kumar Sep 18 '14 at 9:36
  • I don't know why, but my instincts also tell me it's the "c" that is silent, and not the "s". – J.R. Sep 18 '14 at 10:31
7

"Sc" can be a digraph (two letters combined to make one sound) or a consonant blend (two letters combined that make two sounds). This is why you hear one sound with the "sc" in "science" or "sent," and you hear two sounds with the "sc" in "scare." I would argue that neither is silent; it's used as a consonant digraph to make one sound.

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    +1 This is a perfectly reasonable synchronic analysis, although diachronically I think it's best to say it's the 'c' that is silent. The word was originally spelled 'sent' and the 'c' was added at a later date without changing the pronunciation. – snailcar Sep 22 '14 at 12:30
  • I also take it as a digraph, analogous to scene, scintillate, scion, etc. I don't follow the historical argument for silent 'c': people added a 'c' relatively late, therefore they weren't treating 'sc' as a digraph? – Ben Kovitz Jan 30 '15 at 21:52
  • From a historical perspective, in words like scene and scintillate, the ‹c› originally represented a /k/ sound which is no longer pronounced, so it makes sense to think of it as silent. If you ignore that and look only at the sound-letter correspondence, then you can conclude ‹sc› is pronounced /s/, and then working from the other direction, you can say the same thing of ‹sc› in scent. That's a perfectly fine conclusion―but I don't think it's a historical conclusion. – snailcar Jul 2 '15 at 20:15
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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

late 14c., sent "to find the scent of," from Old French sentir "to feel, smell, touch, taste; realize, perceive; make love to," from Latin sentire " to feel, perceive,sense, discern, hear, see" (see sense (n.)).

Originally a hunting term. The -c- appeared 17c., perhaps by influence of ascent, descent, etc., or by influence of science. This was a tendency in early Modern English, also in scythe and for a time threatening to make scite and scituate.

This implies that the "c" is silent as the word was originally "sent". The addition of the "c" was likely to normalize it with words such as "science"; however, in Anglo-Latin, "c" is pronounced as "s" before front vowels e, æ, œ, i, y (It's pronounced as "sh" when not initial, before semivowel i and e). This would imply that it's actually the "s" that is silent as a result of palatalization.

In a way, both answers are correct, but a silent "c" is a better answer due to the origin of the word.

1

As you can see here, here and here, the words sent, cent, and scent are pronounced in exactly the same way, namely as [sent]. Hence, you may regard the "s" or the "c" as being silent in the sense that it does not modify the pronunciation. However, if you leave out either "s" or "c", the other is of course not silent.

Edit: I just discovered a much older discussion of this question on ELU here.

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    And can't the s be considered silent for the same reason? – oerkelens Sep 18 '14 at 9:07
  • Exactly, I just updated my answer. – painfulenglish Sep 18 '14 at 9:08
  • Just for completeness' sake: what if we consider neither of them silent? The same issue arises in lass: is any of those s's silent? – oerkelens Sep 18 '14 at 9:10
  • That is also OK in this case, because c and s are both pronounced as [s]. Similarly, the double-s in lass is also pronounced like a single s, namely [s]. – painfulenglish Sep 18 '14 at 9:13
  • So I guess you have a point when you say that the question may not make much sense. – painfulenglish Sep 18 '14 at 9:18
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If the S is silent and not the C then it would be pronounced, "kent" instead of cent. The reason why is that the C isn't silent if the S is silent. So the C is silent.

  • 1
    "Cent" is not pronounced "kent", so I'm not sure of this. – Nathan Tuggy Jul 2 '15 at 18:55

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