Friday, October 15, 2010

Silent Knights

I think we all must have our words-with-silent-letters stories, recollections of how we’ve been led to cry, to laugh, to scream, to be embarrassed, and always to wonder why…

To test this theory, I decided last week to ask the next person I encountered. Immediately, he recalled a situation many years ago when, in conversation with a small group at a college reunion, he used the word subtle…blithely pronouncing the b. He remembers the silence, followed by the laughter, followed by the lifelong reminder every time he sees or hears the word.

So, I realized, my raspberry story is not a personal fixation… I can share it: I was one of the last two standing in a seventh grade spelling bee. But when I left out the p, and Miss Smarty Pants, Lauranna Banks, put it in, I had failed to win for the first time ever.

Reading recently of the 9 Muses in Greek mythology, I discovered that their parents are Zeus and Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory, (she of mnemonic device fame). The irony of the truth that I never say mnemonic device aloud, because I can never remember if it’s the m or the n that’s silent, made up my mind to write about these devil-silent-letter-words.

Why?... why not phoneticise de(b)t, i(s)land, dam(n), (h)onest, & ans(w)er, as is being done by linguists developing alphabets for previously unwritten languages, and in new planned languages like Interlingua and Esperanto? Or, at least, use “Ø” which symbolizes zero sound, after mute letters, as has been proposed by less radical change proponents?

If you think Y2K was a big deal, can you imagine the chaos and mayhem surrounding such a switch? Every knight would have his shield, and look like this: kØnight, and the poor knish would be screaming, “Don’t give me one of those things… I’m not a nish!”

And can you hear the ongoing debates with the language purists who pride themselves on knowing that ps- beginnings, as in psychology and pseudonym, and the initial mn as in mnemonics, originated in the Greek, from which we derive so many of our beautiful words? ...and that spurious letters, like the b in debt & doubt were consciously inserted at some point to reflect Latin cognates like debit & dubitable? … and that, over the centuries, many pronunciation changes have occurred without spelling changes, e.g., the -th in asthma and the t in Christmas became silent in spoken English? … and that the digraph “gh” was pronounced “x” in Old English words such as light!?

And so many words have come directly into our language from French which is a heaven full of silent letters. To this day I have to think twice before I order prix-fixe from a menu.

There is something poetic, magical, and very special in all that etymology despite the irritability it sometimes causes. We cherish many impractical things in this world, and sometimes use them in very effective ways. I am the proud owner of a 3x4 piece of canvas, which I purchased at a yard sale in the ‘80s for a dime; it has metal grommets on the corners and must have been used as an outdoor ad in the ‘50s or ‘60s. Over a sketch of 4 young people dressed in jeans, it reads, “Wremember the “w” is silent. WRANGLER, the wreal sportswear”… priceless!

Owning it finally inspired me to look up raspberry and to discover that it was named for raspis, an Old English sweet wine distilled from that berry.
So, that’s why!

No comments:

Post a Comment