My musings on silent letters
Have you ever wondered why there is a silent “k” at the beginning of “knight”, “knitting”, “know(ledge)”, “knob”, and so on? Or why there are so many silent letters in the English language in general? Once I started researching these questions, I realised that the answers are actually pretty simple in most cases.
Let’s take the word “knight”. It seems that the “k” at the beginning of this word used to be pronounced in the (now distant) past, which makes sense when you consider the similar German word “Knecht” – where the “k” is pronounced – meaning servant. (The correct translation of “knight” is in fact “Ritter”, but as knights were the servants of kings, I think this parallel makes perfect sense.)
And that’s basically the explanation for all silent “k”s at the beginning of English words – they actually used to be pronounced a long time ago, but while the spelling didn’t change, the pronunciation did.
I guess it just went the same way with all the other examples … but what about the silent “b” in doubt, for instance? Well, this word stems from the latin word “dubitare” (= to question or doubt) – and there’s that “b”! There is a bit more to it (the letter actually vanished for a while to match the French “doute”, and was then reintroduced), but I think that’s all we need to know for now.
I suppose the changes in pronunciation happened naturally and therefore unconsciously, but people just couldn’t be bothered to learn new spellings for so many words, so they didn’t. You might think it would make sense to adapt spelling to make English easier for non-native speakers to learn – but it seems that has never been a good reason …