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Much ado about nothing—aka silence of the gnat

July 17, 2017

On Thursday (July 13) I photographed a gnat walking daintily along a baby leaf at the tip of a blackberry vine. And gnaturally I wanted to post the photo but what can I possibly say about a gnat?

Well, if you could hear me saying the word, you would hear me saying it as “guh-nat”.

I know that the “g” in “gnat” is supposed to be silent but I rebel at the thought. It seems so cruel to rob this wee insect of a whole letter—basically 25 percent of everything thing that it has to its name—all for the silly sake of the English language.

A loan again gnaturally

Words like gnat, that contain silent letters, often were not English words to begin with.

The etymology of gnat is from the Old English gnæt, which, in turn, is derived from the Low German gnatte and the Proto-Germanic gnattaz.

According to Ursula Dubosasky, in The Word Snoop (2009), something like 60 percent of English words contain silent letters. If nothing else, this testifies to the almost pathological habit of our language to filch words from other languages.

When (as is usually the case) the Anglicized versions of these loan words are pronounced differently than originally spelled, it seems to be traditional to leave the spelling as is and just ignore the letters that aren’t used in the English pronunciation. This is done either out of sheer laziness or to confuse anyone who hasn’t been born to the English language.

Foreign proper names are a somewhat different matter—both because the original spellings are important and because the ensuing confusion between spelling and pronunciation arguably hits those who speak English as a first language as hard, if not harder, than anyone else.

A pronounced tendency to embarrass people

Goethe in one of his more whimsical moments.—Wikipedia

For brevity and to keep this post slightly on topic, I will cite only one example that bugs me in particular—the name of Goethe, the 18th century German of Germans—a word that manages to completely bamboozle English language speakers as to its true pronunciation.

Fully 66 percent of the letters in the word Goethe are silent, while at least 66 percent of the pronounced word is basically invisible—that is to say, it is not represented by actual letters.

In fact, Goethe is pronounced “GUR-tuh” but there is no way to know this by looking at its spelling. According to the rules of English it should rhyme with “both” but following German rules it rhymes with “Alberta” (which is not a German word, so far as I know).

Nowadays, with so many pronunciation tools available on the Internet, I have to wonder if the name of Goethe can still mislead English speakers the way that it once could.

Back in the 1970s The pronunciation of Goethe was an almost sure way to tell if someone was the recipient of a post-secondary education.

Certainly my embarrassing mispronunciation of the name was enough once to single me out as a high school student among more erudite college kids.

And no, I wasn’t psychologically scarred by the incident—why do you ask?

In a similar vein, I suppose, it has long been my personal conceit that people born and raised in the central Canadian province of Ontario can be identified by their “mispronunciation” of the maritime Canadian province of Newfoundland, as “New-FOUND-land”, while I expect all other Canadians to pronounce it as “Newfunland”.

Apparently the term for such linguistic litmus tests is a shibboleth, which—nearly bringing us back to our topic again—sounds like some kind of  bug to me.

There’s probably an almost infinite number of such terms around the world based on inbred usage but here is a fairly long list of shibboleth names.

So the answer to the question at the beginning of this post is that there is very little that I can possibly say about a gnat. Sorry about that. Click the image to enlarge it.

From → Fairview, flies

  1. Ernie Baatz permalink

    Did you notice in the list of shibboleths under R:
    Ayn Rand (well-fare recipient)
    How you pronounce Ayn Rand determines where you stand on the political spectrum 🙂


    • I didn’t quite get that far. I was also caught mispronouncing Ms Rand’s first name when I was young. Ever since, however, I have still been mistaken.

      I have thought the correct way to say her first name was like “Ay-ne”. Apparently it’s “Ein” or “Ine”.

      “Born Alisa Rosenbaum, Ayn Rand changed her name after moving to the US in 1926. When said correctly, Ayn should rhyme with “line.”


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