#10: Finishing the Magic ‘h’ List

The last two articles have been focusing on my list of graphemes that, when magical ‘h’ is added, does something interesting to the normal rules of what the letters are ‘meant’ to sound like.  <ch> has at least four variants originating from Greek (where <ph> comes from also), French, Scottish (which continues the phonetic distinction between <w> and <wh>), and Old English (one voiced variant and one devoiced variant), whilst <sh> has seemingly existed for a lot longer, phonetically, but has been altered in its orthography.  I will not be going into detail about <gh> in this particular article as it is closely related to the <ough> grapheme which has been talked about in the first article [ɪnᴧf about ‘ough’], though I will touch upon it again soon.

  1. <ph> /φ/ –> /f/
  2. <ch> /x/ –> /k/
  3. <wh> /w/ or /ʍ/ –> /w/
  4. <sh> /ʃ/ –> /ʃ/
  5. <ch> /ʃ/ –> /ʃ/
  6. <ch> /x/ or /k/ –> /ʧ/
  7. <ch> /ʤ/ –> /ʤ/
  8. <gh> /?/ –> /?/ (<ough> : <ȝ>, /x/, /k/, or /p/ –> /ə/, /f/, /uː/, /ɔː/, or /ʊ/)
  9. <th> <þ> –> /θ/
  10. <th> <ð> –> /ð/

Personally, I don’t really like <th> – either of them.  In my opinion, both variations have contrastive meanings and are plentiful enough within the language to deserve, at the very least, different digraphs instead of the same ones, and further to this, the letters that used to represent them are far cooler than a boring ‘t’ and ‘h’ glued together.

The ninth on the list is <th> and is the voiceless variant.  This occurs dentally, which means the articulators (organs involved in the production of speech sounds) would be the tongue tip and the upper teeth.  The sound is caused by friction occurring through a restricted space between these articulators to cause a turbulent airflow – this means the manner of the sound is fricative.  This sound is common in English, and ubiquitous in Nordic and Germanic language families – of which, English falls under the Germanic umbrella.  This digraph for the voiceless dental fricative can be written in IPA as the grapheme theta, /θ/, which is loaned directly from the Greek alphabet as an accurate representation of the pronunciation of the speech sound.

Words that include this are ‘thorn’ and ‘thistle’ and would look like /θɔːn/ and [θɪsɫ] respectively.  The reason square brackets have been used is because that is a more accurate phonetic transcription whereas slanted brackets represent a phonemic transcription that is less concerned with the intricacies of a speech sound and more to do with the mental input.  And yes, I go very much off on tangents, but linguists thrive on this! 

The tenth digraph is the voiced counterpart of <th>.  This also occurs dentally and is fricative but is voiced alongside this.  Imagine /p/ and /b/ (which are written in IPA but are the same as we would expect in everyday English), the formation of these sounds are the same as each other in both manner and place; their near identicality is varied by only one thing and that is voicing.  The voiced dental fricative is displayed in the IPA by the grapheme eth, /ð/, which is an antique from our own alphabet.  

Words including this are ‘this’ and ‘that’ and would be phonemically written as /ðɪs/ and /ðæt/ respectively.  My explanations are a little drawn out here and interrelated as the two digraphs share a very similar history, and since we have been talking about digraphs, trigraphs, diphthongs, and silent letters, not to mention how these have changed over time and been written differently, we have finished off the list, and I think it’s high time we looked at some letters that fell from the English alphabet…

Now that we have finished our big-little list of digraphs, next time, I will show you two, semi-extinct letters that were once in the alphabet long ago which help explain the <th> digraph and why I do not like it!

-DP, Linguistics student

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