John Larrysson Column: Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (2): Fake Latin

Modern English words have many silent letters. Last week I covered those created by Old English history. This week I'll cover those created by troublesome teachers, such as the p- in psalm and the -b- in debt. Old English was spelled the way it originally sounded, but the spellings of psalm and debt are not from Old English. These new spellings are fake Latin and were created by reforming teachers, who tried to change English spelling to match Latin words.

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These teachers often made mistakes that were learned and are still used today. The Old English word sealm was 'corrected' to psalm, so that it would be similar to the Latin psalmus or the Greek psalmos. The p- was never ever pronounced in English.

The English words dette and doter were corrected to debt and doubt, so that they would be closer to the Latin debitum and dubitare. Those two words had been borrowed from the French, who had already dropped the b-sound; it was never pronounced in English.

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The English word receit, borrowed from the French recette, had its spelling changed to receipt to closer match the Latin receptum. The -p- in this word has never been pronounced in English.

The word island got its silent s because its spelling was changed from the Old English iegland so that it would be a closer match to the French word isle or the Latin insula.

These so-called spelling corrections made learning English spelling more difficult. English spelling is a mess and very difficult to learn. There is no one authority with the power to reform the spelling of an international language. The British would never let Americans dictate how to use the language, and vice versa! We need to be patient with children learning this mess.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.