Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

Silent witnesses to pomposity

Unpronounced letters in a word are often nothing to do with tradition, and merely the creation of snobbish scholars

Francesca, fired from The Apprentice for misspelling “Arctic”. Photo: BBC

Why on earth do we spell debt as we do – what is the point of the letter b in this word? No one pronounces debt with a b-sound in it, so that letter is surely superfluous. And, more importantly, it erects yet another small barrier in the way of young children or non-native speakers who are trying to learn to read and write English.

Of course, there are plenty of other English words that contain so-called “silent letters”. In many of these cases, though, we can offer a more
satisfactory answer to the “why on earth..?” question than in the case of debt.

Why do we spell knife with a letter k at the beginning? Why is there a k in knee? There is actually a very clear reason for this – even if, it must be admitted, these letters now serve no particular purpose. The k in knife and
knee is an interesting survivor from an earlier stage of the English language
when all speakers of English did pronounce the k. No one pronounces it
now but, unlike in the case of the b in debt, everyone used to pronounce it. Our linguistic ancestors spelled the word as knife because they actually used to say “k-nife”. In the modern Scandinavian languages everybody still pronounces the k in kniv “knife”, while in most English dialects the k sound
disappeared a few hundred years ago.

But if the k in knife, knee etc. is a relic from the very many centuries-long period when the k was pronounced in those words, the same cannot be said of the b in debt. Until the 16th century debt was very sensibly spelt det, dett or
dette. Chaucer wrote: “Ther wiste no wight, that he was in dette” (“There was
no one knew that he was in debt”). The word had been borrowed into English from Old French det or dette, and was first used in the 13th century with similar spellings.

The French word det was descended from Latin debitum “owed”, and there were some rather pompous scholars who liked to show off their knowledge
of classical languages by artificially re-spelling English words in a pseudo-classical way. Some of these new spellings stuck, so unfortunately we are now saddled with spellings like doubt (Latin dubitare – Queen Elizabeth the
First wrote dout), and subtle (Latin subtilis – Milton wrote suttle). French
writers have been more sensible than us and resisted the temptation to show
off classical connections, writing doute “doubt” and dette “debt” in the modern language, though admittedly they do have a b in subtil “subtle”.

There are very many other unfortunate artificial respellings of this sort in English. The silent and unnecessary letters in victual, indict, school, salmon, receipt, and island were all introduced by meddling show-offs.

We even have a number of cases where these artificial spellings have been successful in changing our original pronunciations. Language used to be spelt langage and was pronounced accordingly. Baptism was written and
pronounced “bapteme”, and convent was “covent”.

Arctic originally had no letter c before the t, though happily in this case
(though unhappily for the team leader in a recent episode of The Apprentice)
many speakers do still resist the artificial pronunciation with the added
Latinate c and quite correctly continue to say “Artic” and “Antartic”.

ARCTIC

Our word Arctic comes from the Greek arktos “bear”. Ancient Greek arktikos
meant “of the bear”, and was borrowed into Latin as arcticus. The semantic
connection is via the constellation of stars that goes by the Latin name of Ursa Major “larger female bear” – which is seen in the northern sky.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

See inside the Surviving storm Johnson edition

Alex Navarro's aubergine dopiaza

Taste of Europe: Alex Navarro’s aubergine dopiaza

This is a brilliantly devised and executed vegan dish where aubergine is the star, says JOSH BARRIE

Annie Girardot in a portrait 
session, circa 1960 
Photo: Reporters Associés/
Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Annie Girardot: The beloved French actor who became the face of Alzheimer’s

CHARLIE CONNELLY on a French cinema legend who always made something extraordinary out of the ordinary