Silent ‘b’

posted in: Spelling | 0

Learning to spell many English words correctly can be a long and difficult journey.

Why for example do we have a silent ‘b’ in words like bomb, climb, debt and doubt?

Often the answer lies in tracing the word back to its origin.  For example, the English word ‘doubt’ comes from the Old French word ‘doute’, which comes from the Latin words ‘dubius’ and later ‘dubitare’.  You will notice that in the last two examples that in the word of origin the ‘b’ is clearly pronounced.  However, somewhere between Latin and Old French, the pronunciation of the term changed and the ‘b’ was no longer voiced. Similarly, the word ‘debt’ arises from the Latin words ‘debere’ and ‘debitum’, ‘climb’ comes from the old English word ‘climban’ and ‘bomb’ comes from the Italian ‘bomba’.

Some linguists have argued that the ‘b’ in doubt arises because it was originally connected to the word ‘double’ (as in having two or double thoughts) and in fact before the French word ‘doute’ was adopted the term ‘tweogan’ (holding two opinions) was used.  Similarly, ‘thumb’ may have been influenced by ‘thimble’.

The /b/ sound appears to have been lost around the 1300s.  However, you can often find traces of the sound in related words (e.g., climb-clamber, crumb-crumble) and in some dialects people do still pronounce the ‘b’ in words such as ‘lamb’ and ‘comb’.

Aaah – the joys of English!