This is a question I’ve been asking myself ruefully these last few days. The E on my keyboard hasn’t been very coöperative, insisting that I bang it at least a few times for it to make the letter E appear on the screen. This has made me really… appreciate, for wont of a better word, just how often we have to use the letter E.
The letter makes up 12.702% of the letters in an average text, and is the most commonly-used letter in English. The next most frequently-used letter is T, at 9.056%. I think the reason for the frequency of E is pretty simple. I mentioned recently that the schwa is the most common vowel sound in the English language, and of the five vowels, the letter E is the most logical candidate to represent that sound. Let’s look at that word I’ve been using all the time, letter, to see this in action.
The first E in letter is the standard strong vowel sound of the letter E, represented by the symbol /e/ in the phonemic alphabet. The second E is the schwa, represented by /��ə/. Other vowels can be used to represent the schwa, (e.g capital, pencil, memory, supply, beryl), but the sound of /e/ is similar to the sound of the schwa, and so it works pretty well at representing it.
The schwa is so common because it’s such a short, unstressed sound that’s very useful for joining consonants together. In addition to representing this sound and /e/, E is needed for a lot of othr jobs. It can represent other sounds like the long /ɜ:/ of her, or even /ɪ/ like at the start of English. It’s also worth considering here what John Milton once wrote: They also serve who only stand and wait. Try to think of how many words there are with a silent E. Centre, metre (sorry Americans, but the second E is silent), are, determine, etc. And then there are the words where the E isn’t pronounced, but determines the sound of a preceding vowel, like there, where, smile, knife, mate, and so on.
When you really think about how often we use E, it’s no wonder that it’s the most commonly-used letter in English (and in many other languages). It’s also no wonder that if your E gives up the ghost on your keyboard, you’ll be driven close to tears!