shh. the letters are sleeping.

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

english (like most languages written with the arcane and outdated latin alphabet) has a serious problem. an abundance of letters. that’s not the worst part, though. yes, there are various letters representing the same sound (“to” sounds like “two” and “c” and “k” are realistically interchangeable, for example). but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. the bigger problem for those learning english (and those trying to spell it accurately, as if that’s important, which people seem to think it is and we live in an age of popular opinion being treated as functionally-correct) is that some letters make no sound at all. we’ve just seen an example of it — two. the second number in the basic english counting system. what exactly the fuck is the w doing in that word? nothing. seriously nothing. it doesn’t have to be there. and its homophonic counterpart “too”? why is there a third letter in that word? no reason at all.

so why are there silent letters and what are we supposed to do about it?

let’s tackle the first part first. the answer to almost all “why is this stupid historic artefact present in language” is useless tradition. and this is no exception, though there is a little more subtlety to this than you might expect at first glance. it’s not just the past messing with us for fun (capital letters and subject-agreement conjugation are examples of useless things from the past that were just the creators of the language messing with us for no reason but this isn’t in that category). this actually had a reason, if not a purpose.

to see the reason, it’s easiest to look at (i know, i know, not where you thought i was going with this) chinese. what the actual fuck? yes. it’s really easier to understand this if you look at chinese than to explain it in english. why? because chinese is ideographic and the point is far clearer when you can see it drawn in front of your face than if you have to think of it in terms of letters on their own. letters do only one thing — communicate pronunciation. ideographs can communicate meaning or sound information and that’s the point here. these silent letters communicate meaning but they’re using a sound-only method and that’s part of why it’s so silly and useless in english (or french or any other western language that has this trait).

take a look at the chinese character for ocean — 洋 — it’s phonosemantic. it combines two existing characters, water and sheep. i bet you’re thinking water makes sense but sheep in the ocean isn’t exactly the first connection you’d make. and you’d be correct. water (水) is compressed to the left of the character and gives us the meaning but sheep (羊) is pushed to the right and tells us how it’s pronounced. so “water” pronounced like “sheep” means ocean. this sounds complex but i suspect you’ve already got the point. half the character tells us the meaning, the other half how to say it. in a word like “two”, the “t” and “o” tell us how to pronounce it. the “w” is silent but it communicates the difference in meaning from the directional preposition to the number. the same is true for words like “lamb”, “obscene” and “gnome”. they are historic artefacts of old root words hidden in only the written forms.

that being said, it’s only half the story. that tells you why they’re there — history is stuck in our language in a way it isn’t nearly as present in our cultural awareness. but it doesn’t tell you what they do now. and that’s a much simpler answer. they don’t do anything now.

i can tell what you’re probably thinking. how am i supposed to know the difference between “to”, “too” and “two” if they’re not spelled the same? well, i’ll give you an example sentence.

at … this morning i went the window because i was … hot and walked … the sink to splash my face with water.

put the correct version of “to” in each blank space. was that sentence confusing? no. not in the least. we are used to hearing “to” in context without the speaker having to explain which version they mean. so our brains are completely capable of understanding and the spelling difference is nothing but a waste of time. the same goes for other homophones. what about other silent letters, though? do they need to be there for comprehension?

absolutely not. we understand spoken english. the letters aren’t there when we hear the words so there’s no reason for them to be written on the paper, screen or wherever we see them. of course, this isn’t the only problem with english spelling but it’s probably the easiest one to fix. we really should drop the silent letters and use simplified spelling. a shift from complexity through extra words with the same phonemic content to using only the simplest of those words and eliminating all silent letters from words with only one version would make english dramatically easier for children and learners. but most people even as native-speaking adults spell many words with silent letters wrong. when was the last time you saw a “psychologist” or saw a garden “gnome”? do you have much “debt”? want to grab a “sandwich” this “wednesday”? be careful, though. you’ll get a “crumbs” on your pants and “doubtlessly” “bomb” your job interview. english is full of these words with more letters than they need for their sounds.

perhaps it’s time to get “edgy” and “climb” out of the past with some modernization. hopefully this has given you some scope for thinking about what’s wrong with english spelling beyond the blatantly-obvious — that it’s not actually standardized and words don’t generally look like they sound. it’s time we fixed this.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.