Work of Art - ‘Psilence’ is golden

-A A +A
By Art Trujillo

To use the students’ expression, they were “freaked out” at hearing the way I pronounced “knight.”

Well now everyone knows the word belongs to that group of English words that’s fraught with silent letters. There are only three sounds in the word: n, a long i, and a t.

The gasping took place back in 1967, when I taught English literature to advanced placement students in Cuba, N.M. We were studying the Canterbury Tales, by the 14th century author Geoffrey Chaucer, and we’d already covered the prologue; I had them memorize the first 18 lines of the long poem: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote ...”

In the tales is a description of each pilgrim, including the knight (who, by the way, told one of the  less-obscene tales). I read the passage aloud and  jolted the class when I pronounced the title of that respectable gentleman as a “k-nih-ht.”

When I myself was a student in the class, I learned that “knight” had no silent letters, the way our modern, Anglicized orthography dictates. We had some fun with that linguistic curiosity, and a couple of the students even exaggerated the matter, one asking, “Mr. Trujillo, shall I turn out the lih-ht, or should I wait till nih-ht time?”

Oft have I written that it’s amazing anyone learns the English language, with all its exceptions, its contradictory rules, its multiple ways of pronouncing the sequence “o-u-g-h.”

As for the silent letters, I’ve discovered there might be just as many “invisible” letters, i.e., sounds that occur in words when there’s no logical letter to represent it. For example, there is no “r” in colonel, but there is one in kernel. Most people, new to “colonel” might be tempted to pronounce it “colo-nel,” without an “r.”

An out-of-fashion piece of apparel, worn around the waist, especially by tuxedo-renters, is called the cummerbund. It’s of Urdu and Persian extraction, as kamar-band. There is only one “b” in the word, but yet we insert in when we call it a cumberbund. Similarly, we sometimes insert an “r” when we decide to warsh dishes after eating squarsh. And a surprise “l” often shows up when people refer to the Solviet Union.” These same people enjoy sherbert but not sherbet.

Silent letters and phantom sounds abound in English. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to study Spanish, which is about as phonetic as a language can be. Anyone familiar with the Spanish sound system can instinctively infer how the words are pronounced.

In English, there’s no earthly reason why common words like was, once, says, one, two, who, this and thin ought to be spelled or pronounced the way they are. How does anyone ever learn English? Why aren’t these words wuz, wunce, sez, wun, etc.?

Silent letters sometimes have their own justification. The “pt” combination, as in pterodactyl, elides the first sound, “p,” to avoid a collision of plosive sounds, but yet, when that combination appears in the middle of the word, as in helicopter, we pronounce both sounds.

The “k” is often silent at the beginning of the word, as evidenced in a discussion between Tennessee neighbors, working on a car. One of them explained he’d need to “make a trip to Mart to get some car parts.” The other man corrected the neighbor by explaining, “There’s only one store around here and it’s the K-Mart.” The first man said, “I’m from Knoxville where the ‘k’ is silent.”

Reasons for ghost sounds and silent letters in English include the notion that pronunciation changes  before spelling does; those who speak a foreign tongue often struggle with our pronunciations and thus use sounds they’re accustomed to.

Another explanation is that throughout history, English has borrowed enormous amounts of words from Latin, German and French and has continued to render such borrowings as if they were originally English words.

On the subject of silent letters and ghost sounds, try to determine what the following common words have in common:

1. cease; 2. debt; 3. indict; 4. and 5. handkerchief; 6. half-penny; 7. champagne; 8. thyme; 9. lien; 10. marijuana

Don’t let the appearance of unpronounced letters disturb you. Remember, psilence is golden.

• • •

This is definitely not an attempt to put down female teachers; rather, I’m simply trying to praise the men who teach, when the proportions of men in the schools are dwindling.

I ran into Leroy Conway at the Abe Montoya Recreation Center last week. I remembered having complimented him in the past about his choosing elementary education as his major. He’s in his fifth year as a teacher at Paul D. Henry Elementary School.

I also recalled having read an article — about 40 years ago — in the NEA Journal, the teachers’ Bible, about elementary and secondary education. The editors took the liberty of explaining, “to simplify matters” when the article uses “her” or “she,” the reference is to elementary school teachers.

By the same token, references to males referred strictly to high school teachers. Forty years ago, in a large district in which I taught (high school), there was a healthy mixture of males and females.

“He” and “she” classified teachers by the level they taught, even then. The distinction today is even more patent. What is the situation now?

A fairly recent report by the U.S. Department of Education shows a ratio of 8.21 male teachers in public schools to 25.8 females. Of the 3.7 million public school teachers, 76 percent are female. At the elementary school level, the difference might be even greater.

This isn’t intended to be a scholarly treatise on education but merely a scratch-the-surface attempt to applaud males who enter the teaching profession, especially at the elementary level. Although at times Leroy Conway might feel he’s the only male around, there are others.

Yes, female teachers are great, but school kids of both sexes need to experience male role models as well.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 234, art@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.