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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, November 14, 2014

Silent letters in English: The Series

One of the numerous things that bedevil English spelling are the many silent letters we have in our words. 

I have already addressed a number of them in other posts:

the p in ptarmigan

the h in heir, honest, honour, hour and (for some people) herb

the b in crumb

the b in lamb, comb, and dumb

the (for some people) first r in February

the g in reign

the t in hustle, castle, bustle, bristle

the c in muscle

the (for most people) first d in Wednesday 

the l in almond, calm, psalm, and palm

the l in salmon

the p in psalm 

the s in island and isle 

Clearly, there are so many I can't deal with them all in one post, and there are still more, so we should now consider this a series.

The latest installment is inspired by a kindergarten teacher neighbour of mine who relayed a question from her students (out of the mouths of babes, as they say): Why is there an "l" in "could"?

As irregular verbs go, this one takes the cake. Quick, what's the infinitive of "can"? 

"To be able to".  

Sheesh. It's from a different language altogether, "able" being a word of French origin, and "can" being Anglo-Saxon. 

Of course, in Anglo-Saxon, there was an infinitive, cunnan, whose relationship with "can" was much more obvious. Cunnan, however,  meant "to know" (it is the source of our word "cunning").  It was only by the 1300s that its meaning had slid from "to know" through "know how to do something" to "be able to do something".

The past tense of cunnan was cuth, spelled couth by the French scribes who meddled with English spelling after the Norman conquest. You will have guessed that it is the source of our word "uncouth", which slid from "unknown, unfamiliar" to "strange" to "distasteful, unpleasant" to "clumsy, awkward", finally landing in "uncultured" by the 1700s.

"Couth", meanwhile, as the past tense of "can", gradually saw its -th ending replaced in both speech and spelling by a -d, so that by the 1500s it was spelled "coud". Unfortunately for it, this meant that it now rhymed with a couple of other auxiliaries, "should", and "would".  These came by the "l" in their spelling honestly, "should" being a form of "shall" and "would" being a form of "will". But by the 1500s their "l" was no longer pronounced. 

Instead of doing the sensible thing and dropping the "l" out of "would" and "should", we did the English thing and, by analogy, inserted a perfectly unjustified one into "coud".

Good luck to the kindergarten teacher in explaining this one. No wonder teachers have to resort to "just because" so much! 


  1. Best of the series since "tarmigan" ... thanks.

  2. Love your writing; just spent at least an hour chuckling and having eureka moments here. I was already fascinated with this subject, but you make it so much fun!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.