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.

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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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