the sound of silent e

We can’t read because we don’t know the sound of silent e.

Kathryn Lasky, A Voice in the Wind

If English does not happen to be your mother tongue, the chances are you find it rather difficult to learn how the words are actually pronounced. It is not the pronunciation itself that is a problem, but rather the gap between the spoken and written word. Even if English is your mother tongue, this gap persists. According to Steve Bett, English language has a “dyslexic orthography”:

The link between spelling and pronunciation was lost in the Great Vowel Shift [ca. 1400 AD]. Prior to that time there had been some quirky spellings introduced by Norman French scribes but the basic sound system still matched Latin. Now 60% of the words in the dictionary do not match the pronunciation guide.

Take the silent terminal e. (Of course, it was not always silent; somehow it lost the voice during the Middle English period.) What could be the function of the silent vowel? To change the way the preceding vowels are pronounced. The trouble is, in English there is no way to predict how the pronunciation changes. As the table below shows, the effect could be dramatic (cut / cute, on / one), not much so (silicon / silicone) or non-existent (born / borne).

bath /bɑːθ/ bathe /beɪð/
be /biː/ bee /biː/
born /bɔːn/ borne /bɔːn/
by /baɪ/ bye /baɪ/
can /kæn/ cane /kʰeɪn/
cod /kɔd/ code /kəʊd/
con /kɒn/ cone /kəʊn/
cop /kɒp/ cope /kəʊp/
cut /kʌt/ cute /kjuːt/
do /duː/ doe /dəʊ/
don /dɒn/ done /dʌn/
far /fɑː(ɹ)/ fare /fɛə/
for /fɔː(ɹ)/ fore /fɔː/
German /ˈdʒəːmən/ germane /dʒəː(ɹ)ˈmeɪn/
hat /hat/ hate /heɪt/
human /’hjuːmən/ humane /hjuːˈmeɪn/
kit /kɪt/ kite /kaɪt/
mad /mæd/ made /meɪd/
on /ɔn/ one /wʌn/
or /ɔː(ɹ)/ ore /ɔː/
plan /plæn/ plane /pleɪn/
shin /ʃɪn/ shine /ʃaɪn/
silicon /ˈsɪlɪkən/ silicone /ˈsɪlɪkəʊn/
to /tuː/ toe /təʊ/
win /wɪn/ wine /waɪn/

the stupid tongue acts on its own

Le parole bestiali che ci lasciamo scappare rimordono piú fortemente delle azioni piú nefande cui la nostra passione c’induca. Naturalmente designo come parole solo quelle che non sono azioni, perché so benissimo che le parole di Jago, per esempio, sono delle vere e proprie azioni. Ma le azioni, comprese le parole di Jago, si commettono per averne un piacere o un beneficio e allora tutto l’organismo, anche quella parte che poi dovrebbe erigersi a giudice, vi partecipa e diventa dunque un giudice molto benevolo. Ma la stupida lingua agisce a propria e a soddisfazione di qualche piccola parte dell’organismo che senza di essa si sente vinta e procede alla simulazione di una lotta quando la lotta è finita e perduta. Vuole ferire o vuole accarezzare. Si muove sempre in mezzo a dei traslati mastodontici. E quando son roventi, le parole scottano chi le ha dette.


The bestial words we allow to escape us prick the conscience more than the most unspeakable actions our passion inspires. Naturally, by words I mean only those that are not actions, because I know very well that the words of Iago, for example, are out-and-out actions. But actions, including Iago’s words, are performed to produce some pleasure or some benefit and then the whole organism, including that part which should set itself up as judge, participates and becomes consequently a very benevolent judge. But the stupid tongue acts on its own and for satisfaction of some little part of the organism that, without words, feels defeated and proceeds to simulate a struggle after the struggle is over and lost. The tongue wants to wound or it wants to caress. It moves always amid mastodonic metaphors. And when words are red-hot, they scorch their speaker.

Italo Svevo, Zeno’s Conscience (translated by William Weaver)