#9: Yes, ‘h’ is Magical

Last time,  we looked at digraphs <ph> and <ch>, which were stolen from Greek, and the <wh> digraph that contains fossilised phonological knowledge of how the sound used to be pronounced differently than that of <w>.  We can see from the list, directly below, that ‘h’ also does something interesting like magic ‘e’ does, and this time, I’ll show you through the next four digraphs.

  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/

The fourth digraph is <sh> and is always transcribed as two letters instead of one.  <sh> can be represented as /ʃ/ in IPA notation and denotes a fricative sound happening voicelessly at the postalveolar region (the back edge of the ridge past the teeth on the top of the inside of the mouth).  It been transcribed both as a digraph and a trigraph, originally in Old English, the digraph was written as <sc> and slowly, our magical ‘h’ was added to create a trigraph in Middle English to form <sch>.  The trigraph is still present in some words today such as ‘school’.  Today, the <c> within the trigraph dropped out to form the Modern English digraph of <sh>.

There is no clear-cut reason why a monograph has not been used for this phoneme (which is a singular contrastive sound within a spoken language) because various other languages such as Punjabi, Russian, Bosnian, Czech, and Turkish all do.  Even in Hungarian, the <s> grapheme is the /ʃ/ pronunciation (‘sh’), whilst <sz> represents the /s/ pronunciation (‘s’) that English speakers are more used to.  It has probably never received a monograph in a lot of languages heavily influenced by Latin as Latin itself uses the digraphic <sh> but nonetheless, it is often considered another letter in a great many languages.  It is also worth remembering that <sh> is not always a digraph, for example, the word ‘mishap’ is pronounced /mɪs.hæp/ and not /mɪ.ʃæp/ (‘mis-hap’ not ‘mish-ap’).

The fifth digraph, <ch>, is loaned from French morphemes and tends to mean the same as the /ʃ/ phoneme.  Now, before I continue, a morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of a word such as the affix <-ed> to mean past tense, and a phoneme is the smallest contrastive unit within a spoken language or dialect and.  For instance, ‘thy’ and ‘thigh’, transcribed as /ðaɪ/ and /θaɪ/ respectively, where the /ð/ and /θ/ are the only differences between the words but cause a contrasting meaning to create something linguists call a minimal pair.  In French loanwords such as ‘machine’ and ‘champagne’ that contain <ch>, they are pronounced in the same way as in French and still are today (sorry Greek for not retaining your pronunciation of the graphemes).  In fact, hypercorrection of the pronunciation of the digraph caused some words from Italian and Spanish such as ‘pistachio’ and ‘machete’ to be pronounced unlike their originator languages and as it would be in French.

The sixth digraph is <ch>, yes, they keep popping up, but there are many flavours of this digraph and the one I want to look at is the traditional <ch> in <chip>.  This is transcribed as /ʧ/ which can also be written as /tʃ/ because it is itself a digraph within the IPA.  It occurs at the postalveolar region of the mouth, as /ʃ/ does, and is a blend between plosive and fricative manners of sounds known as an affricate (plosion immediately followed by friction).  In Old English, the magic ‘h’ used to appear a lot before approximants such as /r w j l/ and became pronounced in Middle English, similarly to words of Scottish origins, as a /x/ – which is the way Greek speakers would pronounce the digraph that was stolen from them.  In certain cases, the sound became harder and was realised as /k/, but during Middle English’s reform of the language, a great many pronunciations were altered, and this was one of them.

The seventh digraph is yet another variant upon the <ch> where it is pronounced as /ʤ/ – which is the voiced counterpart of the /ʧ/ sound.  This is used in examples such as ‘sandwich’ and ‘spinach’ but appears to be a choice thing as some people choose to pronounce the affricate without voice as in /ʧ/ whilst others pronounce the affricate with voice as in /ʤ/.

Next time, I’ll go over both of the flavours of the <th> grapheme…

– DP, Linguistics student

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