The Other Silent Letters of Spanish

By: Daniel Nappo (email: dnappo@utm.edu)

Orthography is the bad conscience of phonological change. The sounds of a language are never stable. They change at a glacial pace, inexorably, often splitting from other sounds, merging, or disappearing entirely. Because of this change, the rules for fixing the language to the written page invariably lag behind. Every student of Spanish knows that the letter «h» does not represent any sound at all (búho [búo]; hacer [aθér]; etc.); la hache is understood to be a letra muda (silent letter).

What many students of Spanish may not know is that there are other letras mudas in our language, although the vast majority of them are currently in the process of being eliminated orthographically by the Real Academia Española (RAE). A few of them, though, persist. These other silent letters are «c», «p», «m», and «g», when they are in the word-initial sequences «cn», «pt», «pn»,«ps», «mn», and «gn». We see examples of these silent letters in the following words of Greek or Latin origin: cnidario [niđárjo]; pterodáctilo [terođáktilo]; pneuma [néṷma]; psicología [sikoloxía]; mnemónica [nemónika]; gnosticismo [nostiθísmo]. Each of these words, and others similar to them, are entries in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) (http://www.rae.es/recursos/diccionarios/drae).

But phonological criteria usually trump the etymological. In Spanish, it is natural that the articulation of two consonants at the beginning of a word (or syllable) feature either «r» or «l» as the second letter; anything else—for example, the words listed above—became part of the Spanish lexicon because it is a learned or semi-learned loan word from another language, usually Greek or Latin. Spanish words that begin with “psi” are called “Hellenisms” because they derive from Greek («psi» being a letter of that language). In normal contemporary usage, however, it is acceptable to write sicología instead of psicología, or sicólogo instead of psicólogo. Other examples of Greek loan words that have abandoned the initial «p» are sicosis, siquiatra, seudo, and soriasis. The words salmo and salterio are also written without the initial «p» although they were originally Latin words (psalmus; psalterius). The illness “pneumonia” has lost its initial «p» and should be written in Spanish as neumonía. How should one write “mnemonic device” in Spanish? According to the DRAE, it may be written nemotecnia or mnemotecnia.

On the other hand, he word pterodáctilo (a flying dinosaur) continues to be written with the silent initial «p» because of the semi-learned status of the word and its continued use in the specialized vocabulary of biologists and paleontologists. Like pterodáctilo, the Hellenism cnidario is still written with the initial silent «c» because of its specialized, zoological meaning (referring to a phylum of sea creatures). Gnosticismo and pneuma may be written with or without their initial consonantes mudas because of their semi-learned status and specialized meanings in philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that pneuma refers to a philosophical concept and the variant neuma to the system of musical notation that existed before the modern system. This is one case where the absence of the initial consonant affects meaning, making the variants homonyms.

So, as one can see, there are other silent letters in Spanish apart from la hache. However, all of these examples are from learned or semi-learned words, largely restricted to scientific or similarly technical fields. When one of these terms manages to become diffused into general, spoken Spanish, the variant without the initial silent consonant becomes the standard (e.g., sicología, neumático, neumonía, seudónimo…), thus illustrating popular phonological change through amended entries of the latest DRAE.

(The contributor is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Tennessee at Martin.)

3 thoughts on “The Other Silent Letters of Spanish

  1. jhochberg

    Thank you, Daniel, for your contribution to this blog! I hadn’t thought much about this spelling quirk before. Actually, when I saw the title of your post my first thought was the silent u in words like guerra or quien, which of course have a specific job to do.

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  2. Kevin

    Interesting…this very much answered a question that came up in my Spanish class, and had not been fully resolved. Thank you.

    When I first read the title of the post, I imagined you were talking about the sounds that are apparently left out by many speakers under particular circumstances. Please do not mistake me for an expert, but I’m quite sure that I catch native speakers saying things like “tres naranjas” without pronouncing the final consonant of the first word. I’ve also had a Venezuelan native speaker insist to me that there is a consonant at the beginning of “Guadalupe”, though I’m not sure I can hear it (this may simply be my non-native ear, however). Are there actually more consonants becoming silent, but at earlier stages of the process, than say, “¿sicología?”

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  3. Daniel Nappo

    Thanks for your comments, Kevin. And I’m not an expert either, simply someone very interested in Spanish linguistics and the history of the language. It’s hard to say what the other consonants going “muda” could be, but I’m certain that they exist. It depends, I think, on how widespread such a variant becomes. David Pharies describes this process extremely well in the section “The Mechanism of Language Change” from his fine book, A Brief History of the Spanish Language (U of Chicago P, 2007). I know that the aspiration or elision of the /s/ in some Caribbean dialects is considered to be the beginning of a phonological change. In Cuba, they may may say “¿Cómo estás?” [kómo éta]. Ralph Penny, I think, is one of the investigators who interprets the loss of /s/ in this manner.

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