Do you Live in the Land of the Missing Letters?

Ah, the plague of miss­ing let­ters. His name was ‘Arry. yes that is cor­rect­ly spelled, not Har­ry, but ‘Arry. To my father there was nev­er an “H” that deserved to be pro­nounced, he missed them out on every occa­sion. As he would say “it’s the ‘ight of ‘umil­i­ty to say ‘ello to ‘er ‘igh­ness”. For him the “H” sign on the road (Hos­pi­tal) should have been an “O” as that word would nev­er be pro­nounced with an “H”. To him this let­ter was so pow­er­ful that it could nev­er spo­ken. The one he did pro­nounce was for hotel. I swear he dropped so many that I am still sweep­ing them up today and nev­er know where I will find the next batch.

Find out more about Lon­don accents here.


How Harsh?

H by ractapopulous CC0 Public DomainBut, when he wrote (not that he did that too often), there were all the “H“s, just as they should all be placed, nev­er a miss­ing one, craft­ed lov­ing­ly by a hand that pro­vid­ed nat­ur­al cal­lig­ra­phy with all of its flow­ing curves, often in dou­bles and trebles.

A tra­di­tion­al rule of Eng­lish states that “an” is used before words that start with an “Hwhen the first syl­la­ble of that word is not stressed. When is the “H” stressed or not? To use one of my father’s favourites, the word hos­pi­tal, I have always believed the word to be stressed on the first syl­la­ble as opposed to hotel which is stressed on the last. The first syl­la­ble is ‘hos’, and is stressed when cor­rect­ly pro­nounced, there­fore cor­rect usage is ‘a hos­pi­tal’ and ‘an hotel’ where the “H” is near­ly silent. (Despite what the gram­mar check­ing soft­ware may say).

There are a lot of words that begin with an H and it is only when used as a sin­gu­lar noun that you need to take care in its usage. Where the “H” is at the begin­ning of the word it is silent (or almost) in words like hon­our and honest.

The let­ter “H” can be silent in oth­er parts of the word as well. Think of the following:

  • Ghost
  • Aghast
  • Gherkin
  • Ghet­to
  • Ghoul
  • Rhi­noc­er­os
  • Rhyme

Although in the last of these I believe the “H” is less than silent as it mod­i­fies the sound of the “Y”.


Word Sounds

If you know enough is enough, then the fol­low­ing words should fol­low suit, although most don’t:

  • Though
  • Through
  • Plough
  • Dough
  • Cough
  • Hic­cough

Hic­cough is the weird­est of each, it has the word cough embed­ded, yet that part of the word is pro­nounced “cup”. It also has a dis­tinct pause between the first and sec­ond part, like “hick cup”. There are plen­ty of words that are not pro­nounced that way they are spelt, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing diagram:

Missing Letters - spelt not spoken

Many are because of the impact of silent let­ters shown on this page, oth­ers are because of for­eign words intro­duced into the Eng­lish lan­guage. Oth­ers have weird and won­der­ful rea­sons behind them. Wednes­day, for exam­ple, is based on an Old Eng­lish the day of the week named after the Ger­man­ic god Woden, The word and its pro­nun­ci­a­tion has changed over time from Wodens­day to the cur­rent Wednesday.


Other Letters

K by racapopulous CC0 Public Domain from PixabayThere are oth­er let­ters that are silent in parts of cer­tain words. “K” is silent in knife, knee, knight, knot, knock , and many oth­ers. “W” because we write, wrap, wran­gle, wrin­kle, and wrig­gle with it (among oth­er things). “B” as in bomb, comb, crumb, climb, debt, doubt, and where would we be with­out our thumb? “T” as with cas­tle, fas­ten, has­ten, lis­ten, nes­tle, and whistle.

Going in anoth­er direc­tion “P” when com­bined with an “H” is mod­i­fied to sound like an “F” in words like phys­i­cal, physics, phar­ma­cy, alpha­bet, hyphen, ele­phant, and dol­phin. Yet “P” becomes silent when com­bined with an “S” at the begin­ning of a word as in psy­chol­o­gy or psy­chi­a­trist, but can also remain silent on oth­er occa­sions as in pneu­mat­ic, pneu­mo­nia, pterosaurs (those fly­ing dinosaurs), and ptarmi­gan (the name of a bird). “P” also wish­es to join in the game of not being pro­nounced in the mid­dle of words, such as in corps, coup, cup­board, and receipt. It thinks of itself as quite ver­sa­tile, does the lit­tle “p”.

G” gets into the action with words like benign, cologne, for­eign, reign, sign, resign and design. It is silent in the begin­ning of words like gnarl, gnaw, gnome, and gnu.


Silent Sources?

Did I ever say that Eng­lish was easy?

Why have a let­ter in a word when it’s silent in pro­nun­ci­a­tion? It is a ques­tion of pho­net­ics. The fact Eng­lish is such a fast-evolv­ing lan­guage and has many cen­tres of use gives many vari­a­tions in lan­guage use. Latin, Old French, Sax­on, Ger­man, Mid­dle and Old Eng­lish, Norse, have all had their impact on the lan­guage. The same is true for lands con­quered by the Eng­lish and lat­er the British which have intro­duced new words into the language.

Native American by kordspace CC0 Public Domain from PixabayTea, the favourite drink of the both Britain and Indi­an sub-con­ti­nent is a word adopt­ed from Hin­di, “chai”. It is also true of words like Mis­sis­sip­pi and cari­bou adopt­ed from the Algo­nquian tribes of North Amer­i­ca, oth­er native Amer­i­can tribes have also con­tributed to the lan­guage. The same is true for oth­er Euro­pean lan­guages which offer an influ­ence. Latin is the basis of Span­ish, Ital­ian and French, which have all influ­enced the lan­guage. Influ­ence of the Angles and Sax­ons brings points of sim­i­lar­i­ty to Ger­man and Dutch lan­guages. For exam­ple here in North Amer­i­ca the herb cilantro is com­mon­ly avail­able, yet it Britain it is corian­der. Cilantro is a Span­ish word adopt­ed in the USA and Canada

Oth­er words are man­u­fac­tured using base lan­guages, Greek and Latin and some oth­ers. For exam­ple the word tele­vi­sion comes from Ancient Greek (tèle), mean­ing ‘far’, and Latin visio, mean­ing ‘sight’. Like­ly bor­rowed from the French word télévi­sion (after drop­ping the accent marks), weird giv­en that John Logie Baird, a Scots­man invent­ed the product.



I some­times won­der if we should sit down and agree a set of spellings that would be pho­net­ic in ori­gin. Yet whose pro­nun­ci­a­tion would we use? There are some words that are dif­fer­ent­ly pro­nounced in each land that speaks this lan­guage. For exam­ple how would we spell water? In Eng­land this is clear­ly pro­nounced with a ‘t’, but in parts of North Amer­i­ca that pro­nun­ci­a­tion is clos­er to hav­ing a ‘d’ in the middle.

It could be said those things gnaw and gnash at the gnome and the gnu. That caus­es me to ask how new is the gnu? There are some words where I believe the silent let­ter affects the pro­nun­ci­a­tion. We may not dis­tin­guish between cam­paign with a silent ‘g’ and cam­pain with­out. But I do think words like ‘gnarled’ begin with the faintest of ‘g’ sounds, I find myself catch­ing it in my teeth. The same can be said for ‘wreck’ where the ‘w’ is formed in the mouth and the ‘r’ is wrapped around it, it is not real­ly pro­nounced ‘reck’. The ‘r’ dif­fers slight­ly to that used in ‘rack’ or ‘rock’.

But then with pho­net­ics we would lose some of our abil­i­ty to use word-play in the lan­guage, which is such a cru­cial asset in humour. We would lose the bare bear. I would have ter­ri­ble trou­ble spelling physics with an “F”, prob­a­bly as much as spelling “feel­ing” with a ‘ph’. We would also lose the dif­fer­ence between phish and fish.

Relat­ed Material:

The fol­low­ing arti­cles are relat­ed to this one:



Buy Peter B. Giblett a cof­fee as a thank you. If you have ques­tions then please ask them via a com­ment. The images includ­ed here are from roy­al­ty free pub­lic domain image col­lec­tions, pho­tographs from Pix­abay, or from Peter Giblett’s per­son­al collection.

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