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/
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