There is nothing magic about e
Magic, by definition, is unexplainable and mysterious; silent e isn’t that.
When I hear teachers say "magic e" it usually makes my toes curl. I want to jump up and say what is so magical about it? What are these magical powers? I know that for years publishers have been teaching school teachers to say magic e. I see now there are a few OG based programs that are using it too. Yes, I know you probably think my purist soul is overreacting again. I recently asked a friend to suggest a blog topic that I wouldn’t rant about. Her response was, “I think you can turn anything into a rant.” Probably true.
So now that I have exposed a pet peeve of mine, I would like to defend my knee-jerk reaction to hearing magic e come from an Orton Gillingham instructor. Whenever I start these kinds of conversations, I always like to preface the conversation by noting that American English evolves; it is fluid and always changing. It is an amalgamation of other languages, and because of that the whys and hows are explorable and explainable. When we understand the whys, we can show our comfort with language instruction to our students.
If you have ever tried to read Beowulf, you understand how different the language was during Old and Middle English periods. The spellings have changed dramatically. For example, the word we now know as home comes from Old English ham. As you can see, it has little resemblance to the spelling of today, although we easily could connect it with the word hamlet, also a derivative of ham. Words have changed and evolved, and we have adopted words from other languages. During the Great Vowel Shift, the pronunciation of words often changed, but the spelling remained the same. Vowels lengthened. When William Caxton brought the printing press to England in 1476, spellings were normalized, and patterns solidified.
Silent e, as I prefer to call it, has six different functions. I am going to start with VCe, referred to as silent e, or "magic e." VCe is a syllable pattern, which is reason enough to refer to a word ending in a vowel consonant e pattern as VCe. Silent e is more than just VCe. I think there is a distinction between the terms silent e and VCe; they aren't as interchangeable as we may think. I also think it is important to understand a bit of the history of the VCe pattern. Between Old and Middle English, in words ending in VCe the e was actually pronounced, making the word two open syllables. Ba/ke, pronounced /ba ke/ or /ba kә/. By late Middle English to Early Modern English the final e was no longer spoken, but seen as a marker for the preceding vowel to be long. So historically, the final e is there as a marker to remind us the preceding vowel will be long.
Now that we have a new understanding of silent e, we can clearly see the ease with which we can explain words ending in -ste, such as paste and haste. The e is a marker, telling us that the preceding vowel is lengthed, producing the long a sound. In the same light, the e is a marker in words ending in -the, as in bathe: both the th and the vowel sound change in this pattern. We can see this distinction in the pair breath and breathe. The vowel sound lengthens and the th is voiced.
The next example of silent e is after the g and c to make them soft, as in mice, dance, rage, bridge and bulge. The generality that c and g would be soft when followed by an e, i or y. We know that c is true to that rule, with the exception of the word Celtic. G, however, is a bit more wishy-washy. I am speculating that it has a lot to do with the fact that in Old English the symbol for g was a Yogh, Ȝ, which had several pronunciations that are not present in today’s English sounds. We have a great many Old English words in our lexicon, including girl, gift and get, that break the soft g rule. So I am digressing a bit, but it is helpful to know the whys and hows when your student asks the hard questions. There are few exceptions to soft c and g in this position.
The constraints of the short word rule have impacted many words that end in a silent e. The short word rule states that all words, with the exception of function words (e.g. to, do, a), tend to have three or more letters. Therefore words such as lie, bee, bye and awe have a silent e at the end. These words follow the cvv pattern. Also, although having nothing to do with silent e, this rule explains ebb, egg and so on.
This group of silent e words brought me a lot of aha moments for my students: they are the words with nonterminate letters. As we all know, in English we don’t end words in u or v, which easily explains why we spell avenue and argue with a final e. The v is far more obvious, as we see it in so many words: in have and give (with short vowels) and in solve and curve, where the e is insulating the v. Silent e also insulates and prevents words from looking like plurals or action words, as in please (pleas) or nurse (nurs).
Lastly, we have a group of words with fossil es. These include: the French feminine final e (no longer used but remains in the spelling), avalanche, madame and medicine. Native fossil e words come from Old English, as in come, some and done. -Cle words are also considered fossils; previously the -Cle syllable had a stronger schwaed sound. There are also words with silent e that have no phonemic or tactical function. Words with -ite, -ine, -ile, and -ate are in this fossil group, as in lupine, gelatine, granite, hypocrite, immediate, adequate, sterile and hostile.
So I just delivered the condensed version of silent e. I encourage all of you to do further reading. My absolute favorite book is American English Spelling by D.W. Cummings. D.W. has a web site that also has a plethora of valuable information http://dwcummings.com/Home . Another great book, a smaller, easier read is The American Way of Spelling by Richard L. Venezky. I believe we should think of the silent e as a marker, a red flag of sorts, it is there for a reason.
As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!