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Hello! I have a question about silent e versus non-silent e. I know that the silent e is needed to keep a consonant from doubling in many words.

de + Scribe + ing -> describing

Vace + ant -> vacant

How do we (do we?) indicate that an <e> is not a silent e?

Arche + o + Graph + ic -> archeographic

Arche + o + Log(e) + y -> archeology

Is the string of consonants that would not double anyway what let’s us know the <e> is not a silent e?

Then what about a word like <coleoid>?

Cole + o + id -> coleoid?

Thank you!

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Hello Heather,

Thanks for your question!

I take it that what you call the "silent e" is what I would describe as the "final, non-syllabic <e>". And to be completely precise, "the potential, final, non-syllabic <e>.

In that case, we could call a "non-silent <e>" a "syllabic <e>".

I took me time accept this terminology as more precise, but now that I understand why, I find it quite important. I won't go into detail right now, but the basic idea is that the phrase "silent <e>" sends a signal that some letters are "not silent". This in turn supports the misunderstanding that it is "letters" that spell "sounds". In fact, it is not letters that spell "sound", but graphemes that spell phonemes. In English, the alphabetic letters are raw materials that can be used in multiple ways. A letter by itself, or in combinations of two or three can be used as graphemic structures. The <e> letter may be used as a single-letter grapheme in a word like <he> or <elephant>, but it might be part of a digraph like <ee> or <ea> in words like <meet> or <meat>. It may even be part of a trigraph like <eau> in <beauty>. In addition, it might not be a grapheme at all! What I could refer to as the "final, non-syllabic <e> in the word <please> plays zero role in pronunciation. Notice that the plural <pleas> (as in I made many pleas for help) only differs in spelling by that final <e>, and the pronunciation is identical. When a letter or letter combination in a spelling does not represent a phoneme in a word, or any of its morphological relatives, it is not a grapheme. Such an orthographic structure needs another name. The term "orthographic marker" does the job. In the word <please> this "marker <e>" is a "plural cancelling marker". It plays the role of ensuring that the spelling conforms to the orthographic convention that no complete English word is allowed to look like a plural if it is not a plural. (Think about words like <house>, <nurse> and countless other words that have a final <se> letter string. If we don't understand orthographic markers, we cannot understand the grapheme-phoneme correspondences in these words.)

A key point about the potential, final, non-syllabic <e> is that it is NOT a grapheme. Graphemes spell phonemes. What is normally called a "single, silent <e>" is a letter that itself represents no phoneme, so it cannot be classified as a grapheme. In some words, it may signal the pronunciation of another letter, but that is not the same as being a grapheme associated with a phoneme. For example, consider the final, non-syllabic <e> in these words <peace>, <large> or <cute>. In these words, that <e> can be described as a "phonological marker" as it is marking the phonology of another grapheme (the <c>, <g> and <u> respectively).

The phrase "silent <e>" sends the signal that the "letter <e>" sometimes is not silent. But that way of looking at spelling causes confusion when that letter is just part of a digraph, or when that letter is not itself spelling any phoneme.

This is a point that takes people a long time to get their head around in intensive workshops, so I do not expect it to be clear in this little post -- but I want you to know I have a reason behind this language and you can take your own time to see if this helps your understanding.

You write:

"I know that the silent e is needed to keep a consonant from doubling in many words."

Nice. I would simply re-phrase that when a base or stem ends in a final, non-syllabic <e>, there can not be consonant doubling as a result of suffixing.

Great examples you give! But note that I do not use upper case in word sums. You may have got that habit from the Mini-Matrix-Maker, but that is just a convention for that computer tool to give it the signal to bold the base in a matrix. I also make it a practice to always use a slash bracket after a final, non-syllabic <e> that is replaced by a suffix in a word sum (except in the Mini-Matrix-Maker that can't deal with the symbol). So I would revise your word sums like this:

de + scribe/ + ing → describing

vace/ + ant → vacant

When you say, that the final, non-syllabic <e> "keeps a consonant from doubling" I think what you mean is that we can deduce that the potential, final, non-syllabic <e> is inherent to these bases, because if they were not, adding these vowel suffixes would force consonant doubling, and clearly these words are not spelled *<describbing> or *<vaccant>. So its not that it's NEEDED to prevent doubling -- its that we can deduce that the <e> is in that base, because otherwise the final spelling would be different.

You ask: How do we (do we?) indicate that an <e> is not a silent e?

Actually, there is no need to indicate whether an <e> is syllabic or non-syllabic in a word sum. Neither the word sum, nor the spelling of words tell us how to pronounce words. It is being an English speaker that tells us the standard pronunciation(s) of words. A native English speaker know how to pronounce the words "he" "large" "cute" "describing" and "vacant".

The fact that we use the slash bracket (on computer, by hand, I draw a line through a replaced <e>, or to show an <i> replace a <y> in a word sum: try/i + es → tries) to mark that <e> being replaced tells us that it had to be a final, non-syllabic <e> or it would not be replaced!

Consider this word sum: be + ing → being
The fact that the <e> is not replaced indicates that we understood that the final <e> in <be> is syllabic, which is why it is not replaced.

So one thing to understand is that word sums do not use conventions for telling you about pronunciation -- just the orthographic structures and conventions involved in word construction.

And that is what we see with your next word sums (upper case removed)

arche + o + graph + ic -> archeographic

arche + o + log(e) + y -> archeology

I don't know the first word (but it certainly makes sense!) And the fact that the final <e> of your base <arche> is not replaced by the <-o-> connecting vowel letter tells the reader of your word sum, that this final <e> of your proposed base is syllabic, otherwise it would be replaced.

But remember! If this is a base, it does not have a pronunciation until it is in a word. That is true of all morphemes. The base <do> or suffix <-ed> does not have a pronunciation until it is in a word. The target words in your word sums have pronunciations, but the morphemes on the left side of these synthetic word sums do not have pronunciations -- they are named by their spellings.

You have identified very interesting words here. For years I thought of the second base in a word like <archeology> as <loge>. At this point I think my best evidence is for <log>, but that's an on-going question for me. I also think that your analysis of the <arche> base is VALID. However, I'm not certain it is a complete analysis. That means, you should stick with <arche> as a base, unless you have evidence that you understand that allows you to go deeper. Here is what I'm thinking right now.

I went to Etymonline and looked up <archeology>. From that entry, I got taken to this entry:

before vowels archae-, word-forming element in scientific compounds meaning "ancient, olden, primitive, primeval, from the beginning," from Latinized form of Greek arkhaios "ancient, primeval," from arkhē "beginning," verbal noun of arkhein "to be the first," hence "to begin" (see archon).

That word <archon> is a bold link that takes me to this entry:

archon (n.)
one of the nine chief magistrates of ancient Athens, 1650s, from Greek arkhon "ruler, commander, chief, captain," noun use of present participle of arkhein "be the first," thence "to begin, begin from or with, make preparation for;" also "to rule, lead the way, govern, rule over, be leader of," a word of uncertain origin.

What does this etymological information offer to guide our morphological analysis of this family of words?

I can see that the present day English words <archeology> and <archon> both share a common Greek root arkhein (of course this is the Greek root written with our own alphabet).

I know of an <-on> suffix, so that gives me reason to propose this word sum for <archon>:

arch + on → archon

Someone might suggest that we could still have this base with a final, non-syllabic <e>:

arche/ + on → archon

But one thing that in know about potential, final non-syllabic <e>s, is that we should expect one in an English base when we find the Latin stem ends in a final single consonant with just one vowel letter before it. I think this applies to Greek as well. I am familiar with an <-ein> as a common representation (in our alphabet) of a Greek suffix. When I remove that, I don't have a final, single consonant letter, but a final <ch>. So I don't expect a final, non-syllabic <e> in the English base.

That may be a bit complex at this point, but I share it just to share some of my thinking. There is another reason that I don't see evidence of the actual base being <arche>.

In your word <archeology>, that <e> IS syllabic. But it is NOT there in the word <archon>. I do not have evidence of an <-e> suffix in English, so this would not be a suffix. However, it is possible that it is a connecting vowel letter. But that leaves me with a proposal of a word sum with two connecting vowel letters connecting to each other:

arch + e + o + log + y → archeology

If this analysis holds, I'd need to get more evidence that I understand about whether two connecting vowel letters can follow each other, and a number of other questions. So this is a hypothesis that I cannot fully be confident in yet. As a result, I should return to a safe, valid analysis that may be incomplete, but at least I avoid a potential FALSE analysis. So we can sit with your analysis:

arche + o + log + y → archeology

The word <archon> can still have this analysis:

arch + on → archon

Until we find evidence to analyze <arche> further, we can treat <archon> and <archeology> as etymological relatives, but not morphological relative that share the same base element. If we get evidence that allows us to understand how to analyze that <e>, we could revise that analysis and understand these as morphological relatives that can be represented in the same matrix.

I know that is A LOT of information!

Please don't think that this is something that you need to understand perfectly now. You asked an extremely rich question that gave me the opportunity to offer lots of thoughts for you to consider. One thing to recognize is that I am not 100% confident in how to analyze these words, and that is just fine with me! The point is not THE answer, but the learning along the journey.

I hope that you (and any others reading) find your QUESTion and my response offers opportunities for deepening orthographic understanding whether or not it brings a clear understanding of these particular words.

After all, the point of an investigation of a set of words is never that set of words themselves. It is using that investigation to deepen our understanding of the system!



Peter Bowers
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