Why Are There Four Silent Letters in the Word “Queue”?

What are Silent Letters?

In English pronunciation, the term silent letter is used for the letters or the combination of alphabets that are not pronounced.

For example, “c” scissors, “k” in knife, “t” in listen, “g” in design, etc. 

Types of Silent Letters

These can be broadly classified into:

1. Dummy Silent Letters

Further classified into two divisions:

2. Inert Letters

Letters that are sometimes heard and sometimes not heard. 

For example:

  • “g” in “malign” is not heard while it is heard in the word “malignant.”
  • “g” is not heard in “resign,” while it is heard in the word “resignation.” 

3. Empty Letters

These letters do not have any function within the word.

For example:

  • “h” in spaghetti
  • “P” in raspberry

  • Auxiliary Silent Letters

These are the letters that work with others to produce a specific sound. 

For example:

  • “th” in thing
  • “sh” in share
  • “th” in there

Why Do Few English Words Have Silent Letters?

Many English words contain silent letters within them. Roughly 60 percent of the total words in English vocabulary have silent letters in them. 

There are multiple sources of these letters. Some of which are:

1. French Influence

Due to the great influence of the French on English, several silent letters came into existence. Most letters were never silent, but they came along with the languages from which we borrowed the words.

2. Language Evolution 

The spelling system is constant while linguistics is in continuous evolution. In most cases, these silent letters were pronounced before, but they ceased due to the evolutionary changes. 

For Example:

  • “K” in knight
  • “K” in knife

3. Schwa Reduction 

This is another big reason why some vowels disappear from the words. 

For example:

  • The last “o” in “chocolate” is no longer pronounced.

4. Visual Representation

The ultimate logic behind the English spelling system is the visual representation of the word. Spellings are not meant for pronunciation purposes only, but these words show a pattern that develops visual recognition for the reader.

Is Queue Just a “Q” Followed by Silent Letters?

No, it is not! The letter q is not a word.

There are only two silent letters in the word “queue,” and these are “u” next to Q and the last “e.” This silent E in the last represents the feminine gender in French. Hence why it is silent.

Originally, “queue” is a French word meaning tail or something hanging down. It was introduced into the English language from medieval French. 

In ancient French, it was pronounced something like /kewə/ (roughly kay-wuh) or /køə, and hence U was the only silent letter. But later on, after modifications in the French language, the final Es became silent, referring to the feminine word. Therefore the pronunciation then changed to /kø/.

In “Queen’s English,” the word queue is pronounced close to ‘kyoo.’

Even in French, the word Queue is pronounced way differently than the word Q. Queue is pronounced somewhat like /kø/, which sounds like “coo” in English. While the word Q is pronounced as /ky/, which is like “ou” in English.

The English and French orthographies are beyond expectations. Therefore, one cannot assume the pronunciation of a word through the way it is written, and the word “queue” is its best example.