That sneaky silent “U”

English often evokes sneering amusement because of its many strange spellings. In fact, spelling simplification was one of the primary goals of Noah Webster (1758-1843) when he compiled the American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.

Many spelling idiosyncrasies arise because of silent letters in written English. The letter ‘U’ is a perfect example. Consequently, one of Webster’s simplifications involved removing U from words ending in our, words like labour, harbour, and favour. He reasoned that when the U is not sounded, it serves no purpose and isn’t necessary.

But that silent U appears in countless words Webster never touched, words like guess, guarantee, and guinea pig.

In the above examples, the gu combination is at the beginning of each word. However, the same holds true of many word-endings — fatigue, morgue and tongue, for instance. Also, that silent U shows up in the middle of some words, as in disguise, shoulder, circuit and biscuit.

The letter U originated in the Phoenician consonant, waw, the same consonant that spawned F, V, W, and Y.

The Romans took waw into Latin as V while, in England, no consistent distinction existed between V and W until the 19th century. We still find the W sound for U in words like persuade, anguish and queen.

This W sound occurs mainly in words derived from French although many such words did emerge from Old English.

In the case of Old English, spellings underwent change following the Norman Conquest in 1066. Thus, the Old English spelling cwen became queen, cwic became quick, and cwellen became quell.

Such Romance languages as Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, and Catalan, employ gu preceding E and I, so loanwords from those languages supply more cases of that silent U — plague, guile, guitar are a few such words.

The letter combination qu, typically appears before A, E, I, and O. Examples are quack, queer, quit, and quote. We also find qu following S, as in squirrel and squat.

Of course, U is far from the only silent letter in English. No one pronounces the K in words like knee, knight and knit. T is unpronounced so often that Fowler gives it special mention. Examples of the silent T are seen in castle and listen.

Another silent example is the letter P in such words as psalm, psychology and psoriasis. In fact, with the exception of F, J, Q, R and V, all the consonants become silent in many words.

So it is no wonder that spelling reform has aroused the interest of many people. Noah Webster was not the only would-be reformer.

Isaac Pitman (1813-1897), the man who devised Pitman Shorthand, developed a phonetic spelling system. It never caught on.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) left his entire fortune to spelling reform. The resulting Shavian Alphabet is largely ignored.

Even Mark Twain (1835-1910) longed for simpler English spelling. He was a founding member of The Simple Spelling Board, now known as the American Literary Council.

Despite all this, English spelling remains illogical and silent letters continue to flourish.