How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?
The easy answer is “because English can’t leave well enough alone.”
When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time, and then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we were shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we met, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.
By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials.
In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.
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