A short and sweet explanation of why certain words have silent letters in them
Ever wonder why we have silent letters randomly nestled into certain words? Think about the “b” in “doubt,” the “p” in “receipt,” the “s” in “isle” … or “aisle” or “island” for that matter. How the heck did those get there?! Sure, the English language is notoriously a hodgepodge of words from different cultures, but usually there’s a reason behind it all. Even if that reason is bonkers.
The good news: There is an answer to this linguistic riddle. The bad news: As etymology enthusiast Rob Words explains in a fascinating video, the answer might infuriate you.
A logical theory would be that once upon a time, these letters were actually pronounced. Rob previously shared how this was the case for the letter “k” when it falls at the beginning of a word … thus ruining Arthur and Ka-nights of the Round Table forever.
But no. The truth is, as Rob puts it, much more “irritating.” Certain letters were deliberately put in by Renaissance scholars, who became interested in learning the Greek and Latin roots of English words. Which would have been fine, had they kept their interests to themselves.
Instead, they forced them into the public consciousness by inserting certain letters from the original Greek/Latin word into the (then) modern language known as Middle English, which was primarily influenced by old French.
Take, for example, the word “debt,” which comes from the Latin word “debitum.” By the time it was in Middle English, however, it became “dette.” Which is still how we pronounce it today. That makes it a perfectly fine spelling, don’t you think? But nooooo, nerdy nostalgia took over, and here we are, with words that carry a not-so-subtle (or “soutil,” as it once was) nod to the ancient past.
This is all just further proof that the English language is a glorious mess—without a “doute.”
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