Silent letters, the future of English and shy

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Steve and Mark discuss some questions from learners, namely, silent letters in English, the future of English spelling, and the use of the words “shy”, “coy” and “timid”.

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Hi Mark.

Mark: Hi Steve.

Steve: You know, I think today we should try to respond to some of the questions that we’ve received.

Mark: Well, yeah.

We very often suggest that our listeners send us feedback and we have had some fair amount of feedback lately on the EnglishLingQ Forum, which for those of you who may have trouble finding is located on LingQ in the LingQ Forum Section, but you can only see it if you’re actually in the English Section.

If you’re in the section trying to learn English then it’s listed there; otherwise, it’s not listed in the other languages.

The other languages would have the Forums to our other language LingQ podcasts.

Steve: Do they actually have a LingQ like a SpanishLingQ or a FrenchLingQ Forum?

Mark: I believe there is.

Steve: Okay.

Because if some of you are listening to English, but you’re actually studying French you can also send in any requests and we’ll try to answer them.

Mark: I guess Robert had a question, he was asking about silent letters.

He, obviously — and he’s not the only one I’m sure — finds the silent letters in English to be rather difficult.

I’m not sure; I guess there are silent letters in other languages as well it’s not just in English.

Steve: Well, in some languages, you know, every letter is pronounced; Spanish is a good example.

But in French there’s lots of silent letters.

Mark: Yeah there is.

Steve: I don’t want to go through them all now, but I’m sure there are.

There are also lots of languages like Russian where depending on whether the syllable has an emphasis or not the vowel can be weakened much like happens in English, so it’s not unique to English, but it’s particularly bad in English.

Do you know why, by the way?

Mark: Because it’s not consistent.

Steve: And do you know the spelling of English is probably the least consistent of any language?

Mark: No.

Steve: Well I read once that it’s because originally, of course, the poor people who lived on the British Isles — the Celtic people — were doing their thing and speaking their Celtic language and having a good time when the Romans arrived.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So then they decided to try and write that Celtic language using Roman letters, which was the beginning of, you know, writing I guess in the British Isles.

Then the Anglo-Saxons invaded and they tried to apply it to their language.

Of course, queen used to be written with a “c”, I think, c-w-i-n or something.

That makes sense “cwin”; we can deal with that right?

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: So then the next thing that happened was that the Normans arrived, who spoke French, so they brought the “q” and other sort of French-type writing into the situation.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Then they had somewhere around the 14th or 15th century a thing called the Great Vowel Shift so that, you know, whereas words like “light” or let’s say “bite” b-i-t-e, in fact, used to be pronounced “bita”.

Mark: Really?

Steve: Yeah.

And then somehow “b” became “bi” became “bite” and so there was a very rapid sort of change in how vowels were pronounced, but the writing system didn’t change because the writing system was basically frozen based on the way things were pronounced let’s say in the 12th century, which already had all the confusion of the Celtic and the Norman and the whatever else.

So it’s a mess; such is the language.

Mark: But similar things didn’t happen to other languages?

Steve: Well, you know, I don’t know, but I think the tremendous sort of juxtaposition, you know the layering of Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, German language.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And then the Norman-French language and all of that occurring at a time when all of a sudden, you know, this was followed-up then with the Vowel Shift.

I don’t know; we’re onto English.

I don’t want to talk about other languages.

Silent letters, what’s the worst example?

What’s the easiest one?

Mark: I mean one that immediately pops into my mind is the “k” in like “know”, “knowledge”, “knife”.

Steve: Or “g”.

Mark: Or “g”, yeah, “gnat”.

Steve: “Gnat”, “gnaw”, I mean you’re almost tempted to say “g-naw” when you’re chewing on something, you know, because you do say “ignore”, “ignite”.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: But when the “gn” starts the word the “g” is not pronounced.

Mark: Right.

Steve: How about “k”?

“Acknowledge”, well you get a bit of a “ck” there.

If it were “k” just…I’m trying to think if there are any words…

Mark: Yeah, I mean you can say “hackneyed”.

Steve: “Hackneyed”, yeah.

But when it’s at the beginning “k” disappears; “kn” it disappears.

Mark: Now I guess that combination exists in other languages; similar words and it’s pronounced.

Steve: Yeah.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: It’s normally pronounced.

Mark: So for whatever reason that “k” has been dropped.

I don’t know about the “g”, but certainly…

Steve: But, you know, I think the silent “k” and “g” is relatively easy.

What, I think, is a little more difficult is the “gh” because the “gh” is so inconsistent.

It can be “rough”, in which case it has the sound of “f”, it can be like “although”, “thorough”, “thought”; all of those words.

Mark: Well and that’s what’s especially confusing is it can be “thought”, but it can also be pronounced as in “draught”.

Steve: There you go.

Mark: You can see “draught” spelt with a “ght”.

Steve: I think you just have to be aware that sometimes it’s silent and sometimes it’s pronounced “f”.

Why is “gh” pronounced “f”?

That’s another mystery, so you just have to learn those individually.

It’s somewhat related to silent letters, but I think what’s perhaps very useful for people to notice in English is that a lot of vowel consonants are not pronounced.

I find this to some extent in Russian.

Mark: The vowel consonants?

Steve: Sorry, the vowel syllables.

Mark: Vowel syllables, yes.

Steve: The vowel consonants.

That’s a good one; that would send our learners to their dictionaries.

Portuguese is a bit that way too where the vowels disappear.

So you could say “silnt”; it’s not “silent” it’s “silnt”; “walkd”, “lttrs”.

Mark: And a lot of learners seem to have problems with “walked”.

You know instead of saying “walked” they say “wak-ed”.

Steve: Right.

I think it’s very important to listen many times; it’s something we stress all the time at LingQ.

Listen without reading because when you read you have a tendency to be influenced by the writing system of your own language, so you want to say “lin-ked” because in your own language it would be “lin-ked”.

But if you get used to hearing it over and over again then you start to accept it, in fact” it’s “linked”, “talked”, “walked”.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I mean I think, you know, we always get back to the same idea, just save words and see what they do, listen to what they sound like and don’t try to impose any rules, particularly rules that come from your own language.

Mark: I do wonder whether at some point there would ever be some kind of standardization to English spelling; somehow I doubt it.

Steve: Well, Alejandro asked us that question.

Mark: Yeah, he did.

Steve: He did.

Mark: He did on the EnglishLingQ Forum as well.

I think some of the examples he mentioned were…

Steve: Well, “write” would be one.

Mark: You mean not having the “w”, which is another silent letter; yup.

Steve: You know the pressure…if the only reason for doing that is to accommodate non-native speakers maybe that’s not enough.

Mark: No.

Steve: Or the non-native speakers…because you do hear this term “International English”.

They could form their own language and, perhaps, if there are enough of them, where the non-native speakers outnumber the native speakers, they might pull it off and have an international form of English that is spelt rationally.

Mark: But I guess that’s unlikely to happen because there’s so many English native speakers that are writing and participating on the Internet, especially in all these forums.

Steve: It wouldn’t be difficult with modern technology for someone to write in either style and from the context software would immediately convert it so that if you were writing in real English, native-speaker English with the silent letters and the “gh’s”, you’d just click a button and it converts to simplified English.

Mark: Right.

Steve: The Chinese did this.

They have their traditional Chinese characters and their simplified Chinese characters.

Mark: Yeah, well you never know; stay tuned.

Steve: I don’t really mind it either way.

Mark: No, I don’t think so.

I think people are going to mostly do whatever everybody else is used to, which argues in favor of just staying with the existing spelling.

It’s just unlikely that that many people are going to start spelling a different way but, as you say, if enough non-native speakers sort of banded together and start writing that way.

For that matter, you know a lot of native speakers when they’re in chat windows and stuff certainly don’t type out fully all the words or use the more simplified spelling, so maybe in time it will.

Steve: I mean the fact is that we place so much emphasis on correct spelling and, in a way, spelling is a useless skill.

Mark: Well as long as people can understand what you’re writing.

Steve: As long as people can understand; but they have proven that you can actually put letters in the wrong place and people can still understand what you’re saying.

Mark: Right.

Steve: There are many examples of countries where they have simplified the language — whether it be in France or Italy or Germany — where they had so many dialects in different parts of the country they just simplified and they sort of standardized on one.

I mean I understand that in English, for example, there was sort of a Scandinavian-influenced language and then the German-Anglo-Saxon-influenced language.

The Scandinavian-influenced language was more on the East Coast where the Vikings were dominant and in some of the words the Scandinavian word survived.

Like we now talk about an “egg”, but the Germanic term or the Anglo-Saxon term, which was more common in Southern and Western England was “ei” or something closer to “ei”, which is closer to the German word for “egg”.

Mark: Right.

Steve: And also in word order; the Scandinavian word order prevailed in English as opposed to the Germanic and all of these things ended up being standardized.

It’s not impossible that, as many people say, as more and more speakers of English are not native speakers…

Mark: Right.

Steve: I’m sure lots of people who struggle with spelling would welcome a streamlined and standardized spelling.

Mark: For sure.

What’s interesting is when you read documents from, I don’t know, the 17th century in English the spelling was quite a bit different than it is now.

Steve: And it wasn’t standard either.

Mark: And it wasn’t standard; people spelled things different ways all the time and these were educated people.

Steve: Educated people.

Mark: Yeah, no, I know, now all of a sudden it has to be spelled this certain way.

I mean, really, there is no reason for it.

Steve: And it’s silly, in a country like Canada they make a dig deal like you must spell “neighbor”, “o-u-r”.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Big deal; “o-u-r”, “o-r”, whatever; “center”, “r-e”, “e-r”, whatever.

It’s not so important.

Mark: No, it isn’t.

Steve: I guess you should be consistent, but I read so many things now in both English spelling and American spelling…half the time like “exercised” with a “zed” or an “s”; I don’t know anymore.

Mark: Right, no, I know.

Steve: Well, Alejandro, that dealt with the future of English.

We don’t know what the future is going to be.

Mark: Yeah, that’s right.

We have a few other examples, but maybe we’ll take them up next time.

Steve: Well, we could give Anna, who’s a very…I’m very partial to Anna because she’s so active on our Forum and she asked a question.

Mark: Sure.

Steve: “What’s the difference between “shy”, “coy” and “timid”?”

Mark: Well, “shy”…they’re all slightly different.

Steve: Yeah, I think they’re quite different.

Mark: “Shy” just means you’re…maybe not…I mean you’re shy.

Steve: I think you’re lacking in confidence.

Mark: Lacking in confidence, yeah.

Steve: You’re easily embarrassed; you’re afraid to look people in the face.

There is almost an implication of you’re holding back what you have to offer.

You know you’re a “wallflower”, as they say, at the dance.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So that’s “shy”; you blush easily.

Mark: You don’t maybe want to draw attention to yourself.

Steve: Right.

Mark: Yeah, “shy”, and I guess that’s probably the easiest of the three to understand.

“Coy” suggests maybe that you’re being a little, I don’t know, playful about being shy or you have an ulterior motive.

Steve: Well yeah, I think too, yeah, it implies you’re deliberately being clever or cute in some way.

Often we use the word “coy” with a girl, who is sort of being kind of…I wouldn’t say necessarily teasing, but is trying to be cute.

I think that’s the expression I would use.

Coy is much more of a deliberate thing.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Whereas shy…I mean people who are shy probably struggle to overcome their shyness.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Whereas coy is a deliberate strategy.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Yeah.

“Timid” I think just means…

Mark: “Timid” I guess is somewhat like being shy, but timid suggests that you’re scared.

Steve: Afraid.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: I mean sometimes you’ll see a little boy or a little girl playing sports and they’re afraid.

If they’re playing soccer they’re afraid to get into where the action is because they’re timid; it’s not because they’re shy.

Mark: No.

Steve: They’re afraid of the ball is going to hit them or someone might hit them.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Basically, it implies a lacking in courage.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Right, yeah.

I don’t know Anna whether that satisfies you.

Again, I always come back to the same suggestion, save these words in LingQ.

You can even import all three of them and then go looking for examples and see what kinds of examples you find.

Mark: Yeah, I mean absolutely.

I don’t know if we have enough examples in LingQ, but if not…we probably do.

Steve: I think those words are there.

Mark: There should be lots of examples of those words.

It’s just a matter of seeing them used enough times that you understand the differences.

Steve: Okay.

Mark: Okay.

Steve: We’ve covered that.

Mark: That’s good.

Steve: Thank you, bye and send us more questions. Bye for now.

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