Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re going to be very quiet…
Q: Hi AWC, I just watched that classic film Silence of the Lambs.
A: Ah yes, a real thriller.
Q: After I got over my disappointment at it not being about a well-behaved farm, I enjoyed it. However, it left me wondering about the silent B in the word “lambs”. Why do we have silent-B words?
A: A dumb idea, you think?
A: Makes you doubt the English language?
A: Feels like quite a climb.
Q: I can see what you’re doing.
A: Yes, sorry, it wasn’t very subtle.
Q: Oh yes, that’s another one! Just how many silent-B words ARE there?
A: Around 15 base words, with most (a dozen or so) being formed from “mb” combinations – plumber, thumb, bomb, womb, tomb and so on.
Q: So, what’s the deal with themb?
A: Nice. Well, there are two kinds of silent-B words – legitimate ones and dodgy ones. We’ll start with the legit ones.
A: So, take a word like “climb”. Its origin is from the word “climban”. Also, “bomb” is from “bombus”, “tomb” is from “tumbos” and even “catacomb” was once “catacumbus”. The point is that the original words once contained another syllable after the B – meaning that the B was pronounced.
A: But when that part was dropped, the B stuck around, despite the M doing all the work.
Q: So why keep the B at all?
A: Often it’s because two or more languages created it. Take “climb” again. “Climban” was the Old English origin, but it also came from the Dutch “klimmen”. When they got together to negotiate the new word, compromises were made. The B got to stay, but lost all its privileges.
Q: Sounds like a flatmate I once had…
A: Another example, “dumb”, is a mix of Dutch “dom”, German “dumm” and Old Norse “dumbr”. Again, when they met up to form the new word, we ended up with a mix of “dumm and dumbr”.
Q: Haha, cute. I keep imagining these old languages meeting to negotiate these new words on a foggy bridge at night.
A: Is Tom Hanks there?
Q: Yes, Tom Hanks IS there – how did you know?
A: You’re describing the film Bridge of Spies.
Q: Oh, so I am.
A: Now for the dodgy silent-B words. Like “debt” or “doubt”.
Q: Why are they dodgy?
A: Well, back in the 15th century, they were “dette” and “doute” respectively. Their Latin origins had Bs, but they’d lost those over the centuries that followed.
Q: So you’re saying they got a B-minus in Latin!
A: Exactly. So no trace of the B remained. But then along came overzealous scholars – who clearly got an A+ in Latin because they wanted to restore the root spelling to make words sound more Latin again. So the Bs were reinstated.
Q: What a lot of unnecessary work.
A: Well, it can be argued that it made words like “dubious” and “doubt” and even “double” seem more related, by looking more alike. Same with “debit” and “debt”.
Q: Did “subtle” suffer the same fate?
A: It sure did – it was “sotil” but was not-so-subtely “re-Latinised” by the Latin lovers of the 15th century.
Q: Haha, “Latin lovers” has never meant something quite so nerdy before!
A: True. And that’s the story of the silent B.
Q: Thanks – now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m having an old friend for dinner. I need to pick up some fava beans and a Chianti…
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!