After class today a student politely asked me, “Could you tell me why the k in knife is silent?” I replied, “I don’t know.”
My reply wasn’t good, but it was the truth. There are a few words like this, for example: knee, knot, knock, knickers, knuckle and, of course, know (plus knew and known). So I decided to do some research and find the answer.
It was actually quite easy to find. I googled ‘Why a silent k’, and Google found 26,200,000 sites in 0.15 seconds. The third site had the answer.
In Old English the k was not silent. So the word ‘knife’ was pronounced in full. But this was a little difficult to pronounce. I guess that humans are always finding easier ways to do things, and sometime during the 16th and 17th centuries the difficult k was dropped.
The only mystery is why it remains in the spelling. Maybe it was in so many books that no-one felt like changing the spelling. And if the spelling of ‘know’ was changed to ‘now’ it would probably be a little confusing.
Some people believe that in Scotland the k is not completely silent and that they can hear a small sound before the n.
So the answer is that the k used to be pronounced, but it was a little too difficult so the k sound was dropped but the letter k wasn’t. Know I now!