Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by xzander. xzander Wonders, “why is the k in knife silent” Thanks for WONDERing with us, xzander!

We were wandering through an old part of the Wonderopolis forest the other day when we overheard an interesting conversation between two ancient reptiles:

Rex: Howdy! My name's Rex. I'm a Tyrannosaurus.

Tex: Howdy Rex! I'm Tex. I'm a pterodactyl.

Rex: Cool! We're both species of reptiles that start with a "T"!

Tex: Actually, pterodactyl starts with a "P"…but the "P" is silent.

Rex: Say what? Why would you put a "P" at the front and not pronounce it?

Tex: I don't know. It drives me crazy. No one can ever spell it.

Can you sympathize with the pterodactyl? Silent letters make the English language a bit frustrating. Why do so many words contain letters that aren't pronounced?

Some people think it would be ideal if a language had one letter for every sound. Unfortunately, the English language has about 45 sounds and only 26 letters.

Many of those letters have more than one sound, and combinations of letters are often used to create other sounds. With so many sounds and not enough letters, it's even more curious that more than half of the letters in the alphabet are silent at least part of the time.

Historians believe that early on English had very few silent letters. However, during the 15th century, many words from other languages, such as Latin and French, were added to the English language.

Often these new words didn't follow English rules of grammar. Since their spellings were fixed, some letters became silent when pronounced in English. Today, experts estimate that approximately 60% of English words have silent letters.

For example, the word "knife" could be spelled "nif" if you only used the letters that made sounds. Yet, it has a "k" at the start and an "e" at the end.

Knife, and many other words with a silent "k" or "g" at the beginning (such as gnaw and knee), are Viking words. In Scandinavian countries, these letters are pronounced. In English, however, their spellings are retained while their pronunciations change, resulting in silent letters.

While people trying to learn English may find silent letters frustrating, they can be useful. For example, silent letters help to distinguish between homophones (words with the same sound but different spellings and meanings) in writing. Thanks to silent letters, you can know the difference between two, to, and too!

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day is salty, buttery, and delicious!