As my daughter is LEARNING the English LANGUAGE, I find it more difficult to explain to her WHY certain things happen. For instance, as this list shows, at least half the letters of the alphabet will appear in a word but will be silent. So my response to my daughter is “Don’t ask.”

To be fair, the real reason for these seeming discrepencies is that English is a LANGUAGE rooted in multiple LINGUISTIC traditions.

OK, so I’ve sussed out the logic of the silent E, which (usually) means the vowel is long.

But other letters I understand less well, particularly those silent letters that appear in the beginning of a word.

I have learned, however that:
Silent B is often after m.
Silent G is often before m or n, and that the Greek root in a word such as gnome did sound the G.
Silent H is…complicated, and appears sometimes sounded, sometimes not, in many languages.

Silent K before n once WAS sounded. The silent ‘k’ in words like ‘knight’, ‘knock’ and ‘knob’ is a remnant of Old English, and wasn’t silent at all but was pronounced along with the ‘n’. “Nobody really k-nows why or when it became silent but this change is believed to have transpired sometime around the 16th to 17th centuries. For some reason the ‘kn’ consonant cluster became hard for English speakers to pronounce.”
Why is the letter -L- silent in words such as salmon and solder? “In those two cases, the English spelling originally did not have an L, so there was no such letter to pronounce.”
Silent P often appears before n, s, t.
And here’s some background on Silent T and Silent W.

Yet, I tend to oppose the movement to simplify English spelling. I would find it unreadable, as I do in this example. The LOOPINESS of the LANGUAGE is also its beauty, its charm, its LIVELINESS.
ABC Wednesday – Round 8

42 Responses to “L is for Loopy Language”

  • English is such an awkward language in many ways, but this is because, as you say, it comes from so many traditions. Infact I doubt there will be a single word that is actually English. And maybe this is why it is so successful a language.

  • Reader Wil says:

    You know something Roger? For Dutch people English is difficult to pronounce, as we have more or less the same words but we pronounce every letter. English is not a phonetical language at all, like Dutch, Norwegian, German, French, Italian. See how the British pronounce Worcestershire( ‘wustesje) . English is famous for its loss of sounds.”Woman” was originally “wombman”( a man with a womb). But I am sure you know that better than I.

  • Great post for the day, Roger, as always! And English is indeed a loopy language!! Hope your week is off to a wonderful start!


  • Leslie says:

    I’ve always thought that Grade 1 teachers had the hardest job of all…teaching little ones to read and understand all those phonics! That’s why I never taught that grade, but preferred the kids once they were already grounded in reading. But I do love learning other languages, especially the Romance ones. Great choice today and very thought-provoking.

    abcw team

  • English is not easy.I need to confess that I feel that I’m losing my English, as I’m so interesting in French.I’ve got myself speaking Portuguese with my family and during the conversation I start speaking French without perception what I’m doing…oh gosh I guess I’m crazy!
    I don’t know if it’s normal, but I’m a little bit confused now! Portuguese is my mother language, I cannot mix it with French!!!!

  • Denise says:

    I’m with Leslie – yes try teaching the rules? The rules change according to whichever government whim is being passed around the unsuspecting masses!

  • Hildred says:

    The perfect answer, – don’t ask! Just accept English as the Lovely Loopy Language it is.

  • photowannabe says:

    Love our Loopy Language. The rules never really make sense and somehow we just keep muddling along. Thanks for a great post Roger.

  • Silent letters must be very confusing to anyone who comes from a different culture. I never questioned English spelling when I was a kid but I do now. 🙂

  • Meryl says:

    Great post. I’ve read a good deal about etymologies and yours stands up to the best! Learning our language is difficult. The silver lining is that there are even more difficult ones, and like you, I kind of like the quirks and hints to langauges and lands past.

    Nice visit. I look forward to next week.

  • Joy says:

    So loopy, but how our language has changed since Old English (always worth listening to Boewulf in the original). I blame the Normans, and all those French words:-)

  • English can be a weird mishmash because of its varied linguistic roots, but even that varies in different parts of the English-speaking world. There are different spellings, of course (like “gaol” instead of “jail” in the UK and Australia), but also different pronunciations of the same word. For example, in New Zealand the “L” in solder is NOT silent. Then there are differing pronunciations outside of the rules you discussed, like niche (“nitch” in the US, “neesh” in New Zealand).

    I learned to read using the simplified spelling (and largely phonetic) system called the Initial Teaching Alphabet, also known by its lower-case abbreviation, i.t.a. Many children had trouble transitioning to standard spelling, though for the most part I didn’t (although to this day when I see the dipthong “æ” I have to stop and think).

    Maybe because of that experience, I often wish the world would adopt a single phonetic system so that everyone can read a word and know how to pronounce it, even if they don’t know what it means or how it’s used. Personally, I don’t think it’s the loopiness of the language that’s also its beauty, charm, and liveliness as much as the totality of its origin combined with its utter malleability—able to grow and adapt as times and needs change. None of that would change with a more rational system than the traditional orthography.

  • Gigi Ann says:

    I always love reading about the English Language. I’m glad I learned it from 1st grade on. I have enough trouble with it now as an adult, let alone trying to learn it as an adult. I think that may be considered a Loopy comment. ; )

  • Carver says:

    I’d have trouble if they simplified English because I’m an old dog. Great choice for L.

  • Martha says:

    Love the loopiness! (And that gets spell-checked!)

  • GVK says:

    Educative. I didn’t know so much about silence in English language. I often go by general usage, though I have heard folks stressing the ‘t’. My learning favoured the silence of the ‘t’ in often.

  • Tumblewords says:

    It is a loopy language. If it weren’t for exceptions, it might be easier.

  • Rajesh says:

    Wonderful silent analysis of the language.

  • Molokai Girl says:

    Fascinating. I agree. It is very difficult to explain all of these exceptions to a young child learning the language, or anyone else. it just doesn’t make sense! Logic does not prevail!

  • Nathalie says:

    I was an English teacher before and I found it hard to explain to my students the reasons for having a letter in a word and then not say/pronounce it.

    The hardest question posted to me was this: “Teacher, why put that letter in the word and not say it out loud? Did the person who invented (yes, she used the word invented) the word make a mistake in spelling?”

  • English is a loopy, lovely living language and quite fun. I also wonder things like what came first: the fruit or the color and why we don’t say the “l” when we eat salmon but we say the “l” when we address a Mr. Salmon. Or, is it the other way around?

  • In the UK, the Spelling Reform Bill of 1953 wasn withdrawn after opposition from the House of Lords pending research as to the impact and benefits of the proposed changes. The research confirmed that the fundamental problem with all new language systems was that they lead to more confusion than clarity.

  • MommyLESsons says:

    Another well thought post..i love reading your ABC posts.. Mine is up hope you can check it out. ABC Challenge

  • Cildemer says:

    Very interesting and informative post about pronunciation!
    Loved it! Thanks for sharing, Owen;o)

    Hope you are having a nice and happy week****

  • Gattina says:

    Fortunately she doesn’t has to learn French ! there are not only one letter which you don’t pronounce but sometimes 3 so you never know if it is one person speaking of several ! and aux is pronounced O for example.

  • LisaF says:

    Yes, it’s a wonder anyone learns how to spell in English. Definitely Loopy. Perfect descriptive word.

  • Nonizamboni says:

    Leave it to a librarian to expose our language. Nice post!

  • Bombshell! (LOL) I love your love of words, Roger. English being the fluid language it is, I marvel at your ability to teach all of us, not only your daughter, about the ins and outs of this language. Actually, I speak American, which seems to have taken on a life of its own. What do you think?

    Your friend, Amy (here’s my snarky political ABC)

  • chrisj says:

    Roger, I’m so glad you chose this topic! As a former English teacher I really appreciate all you have to say. Over the years I have learned to love the English languish as I discovered more and more of its ‘loopiness.’ I have learned (not too thoroughly) 5 or 6 languages and I have to say that knowing the English language helped enormously in doing that. I think that recognizing some of the root words in Anglo-Saxon English made language all the more interesting. You should have seen the look on my English students’ faces when I told them I had to learn and read Chaucer from the Anglo-Saxon! Now all that might sound like I’m boasting about my language skills, but just set that against my very inadequate math skills…what a struggle that was! Never got past algebra I and basic geometry. I even had to learn my times tables when I was in college. Nobody ever told me you had to MEMORIZE them! My academic skills are in a very Limited area.

  • dhemz says:

    oh my….this is pretty awesome article…thanks for dropping by Rog.

  • Mona says:

    interesting post for L learned from you!

  • Wanda says:

    This was the most interesting post. I like how you dig deep and share very meaningful things…Loopy, yes, thats a good discription.

  • Bev Baird says:

    Great post Roger! I always seem to be apologizing for the weirdness of the English language to my ESL students!

  • ann says:

    This is handy knowledge for a teacher of ESOL.


  • ann says:

    Nadine was based on a real person. That was my first venture into writing five years ago.
    I posted the rest of the story in my
    This was the reason why I started blogging. It was to showcase my writing.
    Of course, at that time, I didn’t know any of you, so my writings were not read.
    Thank you all for reading and commenting.

    I will rehash the story.

  • Helen Mac says:

    Very interesting post, Rog! Language is always so fascinating. And I love your characterization of English as loopy. The bane of my spelling is the “ie” or “ei” conundrum.

  • Helen Mac says:

    Then there is the “gh” sound. Any idea which linguistic root that came from?

  • kat says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Now, I am sure that “gnome” word should be read as “nome” haha.

    Happy ABC Wed.

  • jabblog uk says:

    English is a complicated language and often the pronunciation is illogical – through, though, thought, cough, bough, chough for example.
    By the way, I pronounce the ‘l’ in solder – but then I’m English;-)

  • Roger says:

    Helen Mac – Here’s an interesting article re the WHY of gh – – and this describes some gh examples

  • April 13th, 2011
    Hi Roger,
    Thank you for visiting my post for L. My catmother, Cajsa gave birth to five kittens a week ago so I have not had time to go around visiting. I’ll be posting about my new siblings soon.
    Sara Cat

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