ALL Letters Are Silent!

That’s right. Most of you have been misled. There’s no such thing as a “silent <e>” in cake or a “silent <l>” in talk. Phonological necessities or etymological markers (the <l> in talk is there because of its connection with tell), yes, but “silent letters?” No. Go ahead…test it out for yourself…place your ear next to any letter on this blog post. Hear anything? Nope…because, as I said, all letters are silent.

But fear not. The final nonsyllabic <e> does hold a special place in the orthographer’s mind. For example, Karl arrived first to the class yesterday after a two week break and said, “I came across a cool word that I’m wondering about.” Music to my ears! It was <pedestrian>. We all set about investigating, either that word or others the kids were interested in, and here’s what we found.

pedestrian (adj.) Look up pedestrian at Dictionary.com1716, “prosaic, dull” (of writing), from Latin pedester (genitive pedestris) “plain, not versified, prosaic,” literally “on foot” (sense contrasted with equester “on horseback”), from pedes “one who goes on foot,” from pes (genitive pedis) “foot,” from PIE root*ped- (1) “a foot” (see foot (n.)).

Our word sleuths found meaning connections to pedicure, pedal, and pedigree, but, surprisingly, not centipede or impede (they discovered those later), both of which would have proven the need for <pede> rather than <ped>. The kids were happy with a <ped> hypothesis based on their evidence, but I challenged them with, “Could the bound base be <pede>?” Time for some word sums and the suffix checker.

Most kids tested this one first:

<ped> + <-al>

Hmm…that would result in *peddal. OK…well…let’s try <pede> + <-al>.

Bingo! Evidence of why we need that single final <e>. And eventually the kids figured out impede and centipede and millipede, and even tripod – not a structural connection but it does derive from the same Proto Indo European root, *ped “foot”, as the others.

The structure of <pedestrian>, however, left us wondering. Several hypotheses:

<pede> + <estrian>    <pede> + <-est> + <-rian>     <pede> + <estr> + <-ian>

Word Searcher revealed only two English words with the final string <strian>…pedestrian and equestrian. LatDict was helpful, and led us to the following hypothesis. Still not convinced, however…

<pede> + <est> + <(e)r> + <-ian>

…but we love it when discoveries lead to more questions.

Matrix based on our current understanding:


What did we do next?

<carn> or <carne> in <carnivore>?

In a similar investigation, inspired by this video of two kindergarten orthographers in Lyn Anderson’s class (not a misprint…two six-year-old children capably talking about Latin roots and etymology and loving it), we wondered about the potential presence of a single, final <e> in the base element for the word carnivore. We also discovered that the following words are related, each from the Latin root caro “flesh” – carnation, reincarnated (the KG students were way ahead of us), carnage, and carnival. That last one prompted Alice to say, “In Italy, carnival is a day we don’t eat meat.”


Ritvik, Sean, Ben, Justin, Alice and I couldn’t find a reason for a single, final <e> in the base element (word sums worked with or without it on the Suffix Checker), so we think the word sum for carnival is <carn> + <-ive> + <-al>. Or, I should say, that’s what we thought. Then we saw: Latin caro “flesh” (seecarnage) + levare “lighten, raise, remove” (see lever (n.)).

Wait a minute…is carnival a compound word?

<carn> + <i> + <val>

Uhhh…the Latin is levare…so the letter ordering “v-a-l” seems suspect. But that link to “lever” set Justin and Ritvik on another enthusiastic tangent…lever, levitate, elevator!

Another matrix, again, based on our current understanding.


And one more just because…



As usual…we’d love to hear about any challenges you may have and/or additional understanding you may provide.

10 thoughts on “ALL Letters Are Silent!

  1. Mary Beth Steven

    Your title drew me in immediately. Goes against years of “letters make sounds, but that e is silent!” And it makes a huge difference to teaching and learning once that age old myth is cast away. We’ve been looking at graphemes, digraphs and trigraphs lately. The students are collecting words and making observations without any “hints of what to look for” from me. It is like they are learning the alphabet all over, except this time they are seeing each letter as a multifaceted integral part of a word instead of “each letter makes one sound, except in this word, and this word, and this word, …” !

    The other thing that I wanted to share is that during a quick conversation about ‘bi-‘ from Latin and ‘bi-‘ from Greek, a student asked if the word ‘bicycle’ was Latin since it’s prefix was Latinate. I too quickly responded, “Yes.” And then I looked it up. How fun it was to have found a hybrid word and to be able to highlight the discovery with the class. But the next discovery was that ‘bicycle’, 1868, is newer than ‘tricycle’, 1828, and that before that was the word ‘velocipede’, 1819! What a fun discovery! We finished up with a similar discussion regarding the base ‘ped(e)’ to what I imagine you and your class had.

  2. Dan Post author

    Oh man…I think we should campaign to bring back ‘velocipede.’ How cool is THAT word?! Thanks for checking in, Mary Beth. I loved your recent student investigations. So good. And I hear what you’re saying about the kids “learning the alphabet all over.” Gina and Pete always emphasise the “oneness” of digraphs and trigraphs like ‘sh’ and ‘ugh’ – not two or three letter but ONE thing. That’s been such a break through with me and something I try to emphasise with the kids.
    Another thing I’ve tried recently, that you might enjoy, is the “Orthography Challenge.” It can take two minutes or ten…whatever the class is in the mood for. Students work on their own or with partners…they have their notebooks and iPads at the ready. I simply say a word and they have a few minutes (or as long as it takes, really), using any resource, to determine the spelling, write a word sum, and identify each morpheme as either an affix, connecting vowel, or base element. Points are awarded, but that doesn’t really matter…they LOVE it. It’s been a good way for me to gauge understanding, particularly since our orthography efforts are sporadic at best…and I don’t give “tests.”

  3. Pete Bowers

    Thanks for sharing this understanding about what letters are and are not Dan. It is graphemes, never letters in and of themselves, that represent phonemes (what we typically think of as “sounds”) in words. While I have understood and taught about this for quite a long time now, my awareness of the significance of this insight has become much deeper recently. One illustration of that shift is the fact that, sparked by working with Lyn, I’ve begun to replace the phrase “single silent ” with “final, non-syllabic .” Once we realize that no letter in and of itself represents “sound” it becomes so much easier to perceive the many other fascinating jobs letter play.

    Why inhibit children’s ability to gain this understanding by using terminology like “letters represents sounds” rather than “graphemes represent phonemes”? Why teach something that later needs to be untaught? And crucially, this understanding you are sharing feeds into the most important deeper understanding — that the primary job of spelling is the representation of the MEANING of words — not the SOUNDS of words.

    1. Dan Post author

      Thanks for checking in, Pete. I love the work that Lyn is doing, proving that this type of genuine scientific study is accessible to scholars of all ages. That video of the kindergarten orthographers was brilliant.

  4. Kris Clark

    Could the ending be the Latin “valere”? It seems to have the meaning of “be strong” but also used for “farewell, good-by”? It would give the “val” ending and seem to fit the meaning of saying good-by to meat for Lent, or perhaps even the sense of being strong to face life without meat. Just a thought.

    1. Dan Post author

      And a good thought! Thanks, Kris. I see Doug indicated something similar in his entry for ‘carnival’, but he said it was “Folk Etymology”. Hmmm…

  5. Kris Clark

    As I look further, it seems that it was particularly the form “vale” that was used for a farewell, so that seems to fit the Italian carnevale particularly well. This is the form used in valedictory and valedictorian. I have no other evidence here, just a hypothesis. I know that the important thing is the search sometimes rather than an “answer, ” and you and your students have done that well. But it is always unsettling, isn’t it, to have the feeling that something is just not quite right?

  6. Dan Post author

    Oh yes…I have completely embraced the “Question (search) is more important than the answer” mentality, but you’re right, it’s nice to have enough evidence for a particular investigation to draw definitive conclusions. I hadn’t thought of the ‘valedictorian’ connection….one who literally “says” the “farewell.” Thanks for that!


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