Let’s hear it for silent letters: Wednesday Word Tangle

Image Pixabay

Image Pixabay

I didn’t really study languages at school. French for a bit, but I was constantly being told off for ‘thinking in English’, which blew my mind. So, they expected me to go to school for five years and then they wanted to control how I thought too? I quit French as soon as I was able.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but certainly in the UK students have the chance to study ‘modern languages’ at secondary school level. Not that most of us know much beyond ‘zwei Bier bitte’/ ‘dos cervezas por favor’ / ‘deux bieres s’il vous plait’ etc.

Generally, you’re only taught ancient languages like Latin and Greek if you go to a private school (also called a Public School, just to confuse those of us who never went). But then, at some private schools (well, Eton) the pupils still have to wear tail coats and bow ties which is frankly just bizarre. Though they no longer wear top hats which is probably someone’s idea of daringly modern.

Much as I loved studying Ancient History with the OU, I’m not sure my brain would’ve coped with studying Latin. It was tough enough learning the abbreviations to decipher tombstones – for example if you see DM it doesn’t mean the deceased had a penchant for heavy black boots, it meant dis minibus, to the spirits of the departed. And the three part Roman name system – praenomen, nomen, cognomen – still confuses me to this day.

So despite the enjoyment I derive from monkeying around with words, I’m no linguist. But English is no push over.

You see the thing is, we’re all taught mnemonics at school which are supposed to help with words and letter systems which are hard to remember ‒ ‘i before except after c’, ‘big elephants can always understand small elephants,’ and ‘always remember your P.E. kit or the teacher will make you do star jumps in your pants.’ No, that last one won’t help you to spell, but it will save you from trauma induced nightmares and therapist’s bills.

Of course, the thing with English is it reflects the inhabitants of this daft little island: messy, contradictory, a mish-mash of cultural influences and (if our dilly-dallying with the European Union is any guide) bloody-minded.

What else can explain why we have so many – Wednesday Word Tangle coming up ‒ SILENT LETTERS in words. Yes, we’ve inherited the spellings from invading forces both aggressive and passive, hence silent ‘s’ and ‘t’ words such as bourgeois and ricochet – for those, blame the French.

But we also have words where the pronunciation has altered over time such as – funnily enough – Wednesday.

Now any school kid knows it’s named after the Norse god Odin/ Wodin, because clearly midweek is when you most feel like hanging from the World Tree whilst keeping your one eye open for Fenrir the wolf in case he creeps up and tears your throat out whilst you’re speaking to some dead guy you’ve reanimated. Or not.

So somehow, the ‘o’ in Wodin’s Day became and ‘e’ and we squished the whole lot into one word, and decided we couldn’t be bothered to pronounce one of the ‘d’s. All fine. Except, we couldn’t be bothered to change the spelling either, which leaves generations of dyslexics trying to spell the midweek hanging/ one eyed/ wolf commemoration Wenzday, which is really just cruel when you think about it.

If we were sensible, we’d rejig the whole lot. We could follow our American cousins and drop silent ‘u’s and ‘l’s and double vowels and replace ‘s’s with ‘z’s just because that’s how they’re pronounced. We could, but …

I like our stupid, silent letters. I suppose it makes us backward-looking (which we undoubtedly are) but I like that our history is there in our language, that we carry defeats and victories, even imperialism and triumphalism in the words we speak, because that, with all our faults, helps make us Us.


Do you have a favourite silent letter word? If you studied English as a foreign language, did you find the silent letters the hardest aspect to learn?

Thanks to Kittykat-bitsandbobs for kickstarting the whole W4W thang.

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18 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for silent letters: Wednesday Word Tangle

  1. Lynn! I fucking tried to figure out the gym kit acronym! How dumb am I?! And yes… We were forced to do PE in our knickers too! Abuse! Abuse!

    I always enjoy your words on Wednesday and it’s funny coz whenever I type Wednesday I mentally think wed-nes-day to make sure I don’t misspell it!
    You should try Irish for silent letters! It would wreck your head!
    Kat x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Bless you – sorry for messing with your head 🙂 Apparently, they don’t make kids do PE in their pants anymore – though they might have to wear some old scuzzy shorts from Lost Property that have been worn by every other kid in the year – maybe even the smelly kid (cos there is always one!) I do the same with Wednesday – daft spelling or daft pronunciation? I’m not sure. And yes, you could write pages on Irish silent letters – Siobhan anyone? Mind you – Welsh. Double ‘L’s, double ‘F’s all pronouced differently. I wonder why Celtic languages never developed their own alphabet? Was it the English oppressing everyone again? We were pretty good at that

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well Irish doesn’t have k in the alphabet I know that for sure. Also we have fada a little line over vowels that changes the pronounication of the letters. Dia dhuit means hello but you say it thia guit…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I am EFL or ESL but have always found the silent letters in words intriguing and like you have wanted to delve into the history of them. 🙂
    I love English, with its quirks, funny rules, laws, legions, ups, downs, lows and highs and I wish someday, I could become as proficient in this tongue as a native speaker.
    Susie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Susie, yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? The derivation of words and how they’ve changed pronunciation and meaning. What’s your native language? I didn’t even realise you weren’t a native speaker, so you’re pretty good already 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Does Mayalam have such a thing as silent letters? Or are there any other quirks such as those you’d find in English, patterns of letters or spellings that don’t correspond to pronunciation?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, phonetic – a good word too, isn’t it? I wonder if English has had a bigger variety of influences from other cultures? I can think of Latin, French, Norse, Arabic, German, Indian languages, just off the top off my head which have added to Old English. No wonder we’re a bit of a mongrel language!

        Like

    1. I know – crazy! Well, apparently Featherstonehaugh is pronounced ‘Fanshaw’, Marjoribanks is ‘Marchbanks’ and I remember years ago a friend pronouncing Magdelin ‘Maudlin’ and being totally baffled by it. Mind, you know what this lot have in common? All pretty posh – you don’t find many Featherstonehaugh’s living in our local Council flats. It’s the same people who mispronounce flowers ‘flars’ when they come into our florist 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is all, indeed, crazy. And pretty posh…
        Back in the days when I still had an office job, we had an American colleague over. She told us one day that she’d been sightseeing the day before, and that somebody had laughed at her when she asked for the way to Southwark Cathedral. Which, in turn, made all of us laugh because she said ‘South-Wark’ – even though you have to wonder what’s so funny about pronouncing the word the way it’s spelled instead of saying ‘Sutherk’.

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      2. I know – ridiculous, isn’t it? Mind you, they bring it on themselves by pronouncing aluminium ‘aluminum’ and ‘Notre Dame’ ‘Noter Daim.’ Their own fault, really 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Just read this, with a mixture of laughter and pure freaked-out-ness. ‘Daddy I love you so much, I want to cut your head off and keep it in a jar’? These little psychos should be kept away from decent people 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m surprised nobody’s brought up Shaw’s instancing of ‘ghoti’ as an end result of the reluctance to reform English spelling: GH as in ‘cough’, O as in ‘women’ and TI as in ‘attention’, giving us a logical way to spell FISH …

    My favourite mismatches between spelling and pronunciation include ‘victuals’, for example. Mind you, I like history, so I see awkward spellings as an aspect of verbal archaeology; a culture without a sense of history has no real future either.

    Also, pronunciation changes over time (as well as between regions) — are we going to keep chopping and changing so much to accommodate differences that we lose all connections? There is already a divide opening up between older generations and those who can only spell in txtspeak.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points all. Love the ‘ghoti’ idea – wasn’t Shaw a gem? And ‘verbal archaeology’ is a perfect way to describe it. It’s why I love the fact we’ve held on to our spelling even though it would be logical to follow the Americans and simplify everything. We wear our history in our language and I love that. As a Northerner living in the South West of England, I have kept a far amount of my regional pronunciation – I still say ‘BATH’ and not ‘BARTH’ for instance and intend to firmly keep hold of such things. There’s no better insult when you’re angry than ‘BASTARD’ in a Northern accent!

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