29

Some words use silent letters in the spelling. I often ask myself: why are they used? English is a global language and it is changing day-by-day.
Even if I have to believe they exist as they were in the words originally, why should we still retain them?

Various spellings have been changed for this pronunciation change, like "colour" to "color", "centre" to "center", "catalogue" to "catalog", then why are we still using "H" for "honest" or "P" for "Psychology"?

Do these letters help native speakers to picture the spelling in their minds somehow? And if not, why are they still being used?

  • 9
    This is, no doubt an Interesting question to learners. However, it calls for a very broad and complicated answer (and hence it is Not A Real Question); any answer is likely to be controversial (hence it is Not Constructive); and I don't think any relevant answer will contribute significantly to a Learner's understanding of English (hence it is Off Topic). Some aspects of this have been addressed on ELU (here, for instance - and Search on 'spelling'). I nominate this for migration to ELU. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 2 '13 at 19:29
  • 1
    @StoneyB Or to Linguistics as it's about language evolution, not necessarily English. – bytebuster Feb 2 '13 at 20:35
  • 2
    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. […] Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. – Nikana Reklawyks Feb 2 '13 at 22:59
  • 4
    Colour, Centre and Catalogue have only been changed in US English - but still remain in both Australian and British English. – Deco Feb 3 '13 at 0:14
23

There are several reasons, three of which stand out:

  1. If you keep the original spelling, connections with the same word used in other languages remain intact. In honest and psychology, for example, this makes it easier for people to communicate across English, French, Latin, Greek, etc. In German, they spell Zentrum. This makes it harder for us to remember how it is spelled, and sometimes this even makes it harder to learn the word for learners. Similarly, Dutch spells akkoord, which is again less consistent with many other languages and the language of origin, French.

  2. It is terribly hard to get people to change the way they have always spelled words. Imagine if you had to change your spelling all of a sudden after having spelled a certain word the same way for 30 years! Or, what may be even worse, regular spelling changes occurring every 5 years, which nobody will be able to learn or keep up with, as in Dutch. And, even if you decide that something needs to change, there will be 1001 opinions as to how. Should it be onest? onnest? onnist? As it is, no spelling system in the world is wholly phonetic, not even new systems. Imagine you had to read a teks laik this, weh ai'uhv tsyowsin suhtin konvensyuhns.

  3. How will you take into the account the fact that people in different regions pronounce the same word differently? Should all spelling be based on the phonetics of Received Pronunciation? Or should each region use its own spelling, making, say, British harder to read for Australians and vice versa?

  • I like your answer (hence my upvote), but please tell me what the "words"between the comma and "certain conventions" mean... – Paola Feb 2 '13 at 20:50
  • 1
    "... text like this, where? I've ??? certain conventions." Try as I might, I can't figure out what "tsyowsin" is trying to be. – Martha Feb 2 '13 at 22:00
  • 6
    @Paola Where I've chosen – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 2 '13 at 22:26
  • @Paola: What Stoney says! I know, I know...they were meant to be barely recognisable. – Cerberus Feb 2 '13 at 23:46
  • @StoneyB. Thank you. I really couldn't make any sense out of those clusters of letters, and I'm glad not to have been the only one to struggle with them. – Paola Feb 3 '13 at 0:14
13

Roots.

psychology (n.) 1650s, "study of the soul," probably coined mid-16c. in Germany by Melanchthon as Modern Latin psychologia, from Greek psykhe- "breath, spirit, soul" (see psyche) + logia "study of" (see -logy).

These silent letters weren't inserted for fun, and, in my opinion, they shouldn't be removed for ease of spelling. Take away a silent letter, and some words may become easier to spell, but harder to understand from an etymological perspective.

Inglish haz so menny awkward spelling rules (silent letters being just one of menny), that the langwidge wood be allmost unreckognizable if evry word waz spelled ownly in the way in witch it sounded. Leave that kined of spelling for the cats. [sic]

4

Your question is rather about linguistics. Most reputable, academic works on this matter are, indeed, academic works, full of terminology and cross-references to other works. This makes it a bit hard to grasp. Let me try it in simple terms.

  1. Languages evolve
  2. This evolution is very similar to biological evolution (1) (2)
  3. This evolution occurs when people's generations change, so can't be managed by a single person

Languages evolve

First of all, your question starts with a wrong assumption that today's words used to be the same from the beginning of the world. Take colour. It came from an Old-Latin colos, and that one, in turn, from Proto-Indo-European root *kel- ("to cover"). As you see, many changes in its orthography and pronunciation have already happened to this word. And many will occur in the future.

What drives the evolution of languages?

There are fundamental academic researches on this phenomenon. Wedel (2) suggests there are three major factors: (1) extinction, (2) blending inheritance, and (3) natural selection. Yang (1) also suggests an evolutionary model. What's interesting, Yang shows that both written and spoken parts of the language may evolve. So a simpler writing or pronunciation may trigger such change. Simplicity is not the only reason, however.

Say, there are two competing variants, colour and color. Today they co-exist. Maybe, in some professional areas a certain variant is preferred. One has better historical links, another one is simpler to write.
Note that besides two orthographically different competing variants, there are phonetically different ones. UK English: [ˈkʌl.ə] or [ˈkʌl.əɹ]; US English: [ˈkʌl.ɚ]. They co-exist as well, and we, language learners, occasionally use both.
It is very possible that, with time, one of the variants "wins" and another one extincts. But it is also possible they will co-exist for a long time. Or, maybe, a third competing variant arises, if some objective reasons appear.

Why can't we manage the process?

@Cerberus is right: People don't change the way they use the language. Some exceptions exist, but usually, this change takes place with a new generation acquiring the language. In other words, when our children study the language, they make what we call mistakes. If a certain mistake becomes more or less widespread, it triggers a change in the language.

If you are really curious, here are some fundamental works:

(1) Charles Yang's Knowledge and Learning in Natural Language
(2) Andrew Wedel's Exemplar models, evolution and language change

  • 2
    All very true - but it would be to the point if you addressed orthography centrally instead of incidentally. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 2 '13 at 22:30
  • 2
    Fair enough! ... But one thing that springs to mind is that an orthographic mutation faces (or faced until the development of sound recording) a different competitive environment than a phonetic mutation, since the orthographic mutation competes not only with its contemporaries but with all past orthographic varieties as well. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 2 '13 at 23:14
  • @StoneyB Thank you so much. I have just updated the answer with a similar idea. Let me think on your comment, maybe I can add more to the answer. – bytebuster Feb 2 '13 at 23:20
1

English not only has silent letters, but some words, or parts of words, have letters which are completely unrelated to the pronunciation.

There are basically two closely-related languages: spoken English (various dialects thereof) and written English. Written English has its own orthographic conventions which have to be followed for historical reasons. The spellings of many words simply have to be memorized.

If you change the spelling of a word to suit how it sounds (for instance zailofoan instead of xylophone), people will have a hard time understanding what you wrote, or think that you dropped out of school in the 4th grade.

Why we use p in psychology is because English isn't the only global language. Latin and Greek are even more global. When foreign loanwords from languages like Latin and Greek are borrowed into English, the original spelling tends to be retained (more or less) whereas the pronunciation is altered to suit English. Keeping the original spelling is helpful because it maintains the connection to between English and international words which have also been borrowed into other languages.

Have you researched how psychology looks in various other languages?

German: psychologie

Spanish: psicología

Polish: psychologia

Dutch: psychologie

Azerbaijani: psixologiya

So as you can see, the English spelling has connections to how the word is written in other languages, which would break if we spell it saikawlgy or whatever.

This kind of alteration will destroy the intelligibility of written English. Written English is also an international language. Think of all the books and academic papers. The spellings of certain "big words" are a great assistance to non-native speakers. When a Spanish academic sees psychology in an English paper, he or she can make an educated guess what that is.

And, anyway, there is the question of which dialect of English do you choose for changing spellings to match pronunciation. The nice thing about spelling is that, by and large, it it is agnostic with regard to dialect. Sure, there are some regional conventions, vocabulary and grammar differences. But, for the most part, your accent disappears when you write.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.