I was perusing an article the other day which included the word “Mnemonic” in the text. Mnemonics, as you know, is the art of using patterns, ideas, or associations to help you remember something. We’ve all used them to some degree and success. For example, the lady who works with you named Myrtle, whose name you always forget, but who has a face like a reptile. In your mind, she became “Myrtle the turtle” and you never forgot her name again. I digress.
My real point is, why the silent “M” in Mnemonic? Is it because when we’re trying to remember something we go mmmmm….. first? Nope. It’s more about the etymology of words. Over the centuries, too many folks (silent “l”) have had a hand in this.
Let’s look at everyone’s favorite flying lizard, the Pterodactyl. Why have the “P” at all since “terodactyl” is so easy to pronounce on its own? Turns out, the first part comes from the Greek, Pteron, meaning “wing“. In fact, in Greek (and Latin) from whence many of our words are derived, the general rule with words starting with a double consonant is to make the first one silent. Thanks, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. I guess they were too busy contemplating the question, “why are we here?” to worry about spelling and pronunciation. Or maybe they were tied up trying to think up pseudonyms (silent “p”) for their writings.
It’s no wonder English is such a difficult language to learn. Take the two words, indict and predict. Because the “c” is silent in indict, the pronunciation is totally different from the latter word which has the exact same last four letters. With the words indict and invite, the pronunciation of the last four letters is the same but spelled differently. The convoluted history of indict goes back to both Latin and French.
And what’s the deal with the unspoken “b” in words such as lamb, limb, numb and plumb? Is it possible that the Bard himself was pondering this when he first asked the question, “to be or not to be?”
As if the silent letter part wasn’t confusing enough, sometimes words are a literary two-for-one special. A silent letter, plus an odd pronunciation. For example, “bologna”. Since the “g” is silent, shouldn’t it be pronounced “boh-low-nah?” But no, we say ‘boh-low-nee.” One wonders if maybe it’s because the word originated in the Sandwich Islands.
Of course, I certainly wouldn’t leave out days and months. I’m looking at you Wednesday and February! Wednesday has not one silent letter but two! What a waste of ink! Would you have any trouble pronouncing Wensday? I rest my case.
As for February, we can blame the Romans here. Even though the “b” and the “r” are not the first two letters, one of them is silent. So much for that rule. Actually, it comes from the ancient Roman festival “Februa“, a day for purification and washing. I’d say the “r” got washed out for sure.
And now for one of my all-time favorite puzzlements. Sometimes you have to decide on your own which letter in a word is silent. I give you the word “scent.” In this case, which is silent, the “s” or the “c”? With either letter gone the pronunciation is the same and both are bonafide words. One might conclude that something about the word “scent” doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s so perplexing it made my list of 46 thoughts that keep me awake at night, also included on this blog site.
So, there you have it. My pet peeves when it comes to English and grammar. In these days where so many of us are sensitive and easily offended, perhaps publishers should have warning labels for readers like me. Something like; “Caution: The following contain silent letters which might create trigger words for some readers.” Or, similar to the side-view mirror warning on cars; “Beware, some words may not read as they appear.”
As always, thank you for reading. I repeat now what I have often said, my followers are some of the best peple I know.
Your wit is as sharp as ever, my Bro. 😘 xXx
Thanks, Jane, but I’m always aware that only one letter separates a wit from becoming a twit.
Excellent piece Al. Loved it.
I live to serve.
(sigh) English is a stupid language until you try to learn Gaelic which has about 5 vowels that are rarely used. And what is up with the word “queue?” It has 1 sound followed by 4 silent letters. Stupid. Who invented that word? Must have been someone making fun of the Gaelic language.
I love this post. Every writer can relate to it.
w/a Jansen Schmidt (that’s a stupid name, too – 7 letters and only 1 vowel and it’s not even Gaelic.)
You are right about the word queue. Many ways to go here. Just the “q” or drop both “e’s” to get quu, or a “u” and an “e” for que. Oddly, in the spelling of the city Albuquerque, neither of the que parts are pronounced with the “kew” sound. It’s a conspiracy I tell you!! Funny aside. I remember when Patty was teaching second grade, she would tell the kids that the letter “q” was the friendliest letter in the alphabet because it never went anywhere without u.
I used Q without the U as a person’s name in one of my novels. She was a main character. Her name was Qiana (Kiana). I like to be a rebel that way. And you’re right about Albuquerque going against the grain. Same with Mosque. It’s all ridiculous. Just remember this rule:
I before E except when your foreign neighbor Keith received eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty caffeinated weightlifters. Weird.
May the force be with us all as we forge on in our writing endeavors. And thanks so much for the acknowledgments in your book. I can’t wait to get started reading it!
I will remember that rule….and how did you know my neighbr’s name was Keith?? And now that you mention it, he does get an extraordinary number of Amazon deliveries.
Excellent lesson! Then there is the issue of words having several spellings. I remember a disagreement between an American, a Canadian and an Australian about the word ‘Aluminum’. When we realized that it was also spelled ‘Aluminium’ we understood why we all pronounced it differently!
Yes, that word has been subject to debate forever. To me, the version with the extra “i” is easier to pronounce than the shorter version.
Great analysis. The spellings of words can be so weird and unintuitive, it’s amazing that we can remember how to spell accurately at all.
Definitely. Maybe developing a photographic memory would serve us better than all those boring English classes.
What a great post! I discovered some of the quirks of our language in Mexico when trying to help a friend learn English. There was a lot of shaking the head and eye rolling during our sessions. I wish I could have been as witty as you in my explanations, but I’m sure it would have been lost in translation anyway.😉
Absolutely, Linda. I swear there are more exceptions to the rule than rules themselves!