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Dictionary of the British English Spelling System

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Greg Brooks

8. The graphemes of written English

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8.1 Choosing a written variety to analyse

1To match my decision to analyse the RP accent, I have chosen British rather than US spelling as the written variety of English to analyse. In practice, this makes very little difference, since there is far less variation in the spelling of English than in its pronunciation. The differences between British and US spelling make almost no difference to the analysis of the graphemes of written English – the same graphemes are used in both systems, just with different correspondences.

8.2 How many graphemes, and how many correspondences?

2More troublesome than the minor differences between British and US spelling are the wide differences in opinion between experts on how many graphemes there are in written English. Wijk (1966: 14) says that the ‘sounds of the spoken [English] language are normally represented by 102 symbols in the written language’, but a great many Oddities are concealed behind that ‘ normally’; also he does not count 15 doubled consonants, e.g. <bb, dd>.

3At the other extreme, Mountford (1998: 109) says he will ‘work with a combined set of some 235 consonant and vowel symbols’, which on inspection of his tables on p. 113 turns out to be more precisely 238 graphemes, which are involved in 407 correspondences. In his figure for graphemes Mountford includes many quite rare graphemes not counted by Wijk, but even Mountford admits that there are others which might be counted but which are so rare and marginal that they are not worth the bother. His example (p. 112) is the possible grapheme <schsch> spelling the phoneme /∫/ only in the rare word Eschscholtzia (the California poppy).

4Actually, both Wijk and Mountford are right, at different levels of analysis – the number of graphemes you recognise depends on how deep you go into the Oddities of the system (and on various technical decisions – I’ve summarised mine in Appendix A).

5I am going to provide three estimates of the number of graphemes by counting:

  1. all and only those which appear in what I’ve called the ‘main system’ in chapters 3 and 5;

  2. the rest, including the minor patterns and Oddities;

  3. both.

6All the graphemes which appear in both the main system and the rest in chapters 3 and 5 are listed in Tables 8.1-2, which cover graphemes representing consonants and vowels respectively. Both contain relevant 2-and 3-phoneme graphemes; each of these appears more than once, either within the same Table or across the two. In both, the totals for correspondences show exactly how many entries there are in the relevant column, but those for graphemes show only the numbers of items which have not already appeared in the same column or a previous one. So in the ‘Basic grapheme’ columns, <th> is counted only once among consonant graphemes, and <a, o, oo, u> only once each among vowel graphemes. After those columns, for graphemes I’ve shown only the numbers of new items (indicated by + signs), with some subtotals.

7TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME.

8The Table includes not only graphemes for single consonant phonemes, but also those for 2-and 3-phoneme sequences involving consonant phonemes. The consonant phonemes are listed in the same order as in chapter 3.

9(For simplicity, almost all angled brackets indicating graphemes are omitted).

TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME

TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME

TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME, CONT.

TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME, CONT.

10TABLE 8.2: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /juː/.

11The Table includes not only graphemes for pure vowel phonemes and diphthongs, but also those for 2-and 3-phoneme sequences involving vowel phonemes. The vowel phonemes are listed in the same order as in chapter 5 and, as there, the special 2-phoneme sequence /juː/ is included in the main list. (For simplicity, angled brackets indicating graphemes are omitted).

TABLE 8.2: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /ju:/

TABLE 8.2: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /ju:/

TABLE 8.: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /ju:/, CONT.

TABLE 8.: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /ju:/, CONT.

12Discounting duplicates (including those involving 2-and 3-phoneme graphemes), in Table 8.1 there are 58 graphemes and 73 correspondences in the main system, and 108 graphemes and 180 correspondences in the rest, making a total of 166 graphemes and 253 correspondences in which consonant phonemes are involved.

13On the same basis, in Table 8.2 there are 37 graphemes and 68 correspondences in the main system, and 109 graphemes and 246 correspondences in the rest, making a total of 146 graphemes and 314 correspondences in which vowel phonemes are involved.

14However, adding together the numbers in the two preceding paragraphs does not yield correct overall totals because several graphemes and correspondences appear in both Tables. Thus <i, u, y> occur as both consonant and vowel graphemes, and some 2-phoneme sequences and both 3-phoneme sequences represented by single graphemes contain both consonants and vowels. De-duplicating these complications reduces the number of graphemes by 28 (6 in the main system, 22 in the rest) and the number of correspondences by 24 (3 in the main system, 21 in the rest).

15The full analysis therefore yields totals of:

  • 89 graphemes and 138 correspondences in the main system

  • 195 graphemes and 405 correspondences in the rest, and

  • 284 graphemes and 543 correspondences overall.

16Thus my analysis has led to distinctly higher totals even than Mountford’s 238 graphemes and 407 correspondences. This is mainly because I have included a lot of correspondences found only in small numbers of more recent French loanwords which he did not include.

8.3 The graphemes of the main system and the rest

17Alphabetical lists of the 89 graphemes of the main system and of the 195 others are provided in Tables 8.3 and 8.4 respectively. Theoretically it should be possible to spell any English word using just the 89 graphemes of the main system and their 138 main-system correspondences, since they cover all 44 phonemes and allow for different positions in the word and various other constraints. However, from my analysis and every other author’s it is abundantly clear that the full system is much more complex – and, to give just one example, trying to spell schwa consistently as <er> in stem-final position and <a> elsewhere would probably produce many confusing spellings.

18Table 8.3 shows that there are, of course, 26 single-letter graphemes in English spelling; they all belong to the main system. The numbers of graphemes of all sizes in the main system and the rest are:

main system

the rest

total

single letters

26

0

26

digraphs

53

118

171

trigraphs

10

57

67

four-letter graphemes

0

20

20

total

89

195

284

19Simplified versions of the tables of correspondences are provided in Appendix B: they are intended to be much more useful to teachers and to writers of early reading books than the comprehensive versions in Tables 8.1-2.

TABLE 8.3: ALPHABETICAL LIST OF THE 89 GRAPHEMES OF THE MAIN SYSTEM

a

a.e

ai

air

ar

are

au

aw

ay

b

bb

c

ce

ch

ci

ck

d

dd

dg

dge

e

ea

ear

ed

ee

e.e

eer

er

ere

ew

f

ff

g

ge

gg

h

i

ie

i.e

igh

ir

j

k

l

le

ll

m

mm

n

ng

nn

o

o. e

oi

oo

or

ore

ou

ow

oy

p

ph

pp

q

r

rr

s

se

sh

si

ss

ssi

t

tch

th

ti

tt

u

ue

u. e

ur

v

ve

w

wh

x

y

z

zz

TABLE 8.4: ALPHABETICAL LIST OF THE OTHER 195 GRAPHEMES

aa

aar

ach

ae

aer

ah

aigh

aire

ais

ait

al

alf

anc

ao

aoh

aow

arr

arre

arrh

as

at

augh

aul

aur

awe

aye

ayer

ayor

bh

bd

bp

bt

bu

bv

cc

cch

che

chs

ckgu

cq

cqu

ct

cu

cz

de

ddh

dh

ddh

di

dj

dne

dt

eah

eau

e’er

ei

eigh

eir

eo

e're

err

erre

es

et

eu

eur

ewe

ey

eye

eyr

ey're

ez

fe

ffe

ft

gh

gi

gi

gm

gn

gne

gu

gue

hea

heir

ho

hour

hu

ia

ier

ieu

io

ire

irr

is

it

jj

ke

kh

kk

kn

lh

lle

mb

mbe

me

mme

mn

nc

nd

ne

ngh

ngu

ngue

nne

nt

nw

oa

oar

oat

oe

oer

oeu

oh

oir

oire

ois

ol

olo

ooh

oor

orp

orps

orr

ort

os

ot

oue

ough

oul

oup

our

ou're

ous

out

oux

owe

pb

pe

phth

pn

ppe

pph

ps

pt

qu

que

re

rh

rrh

sc

sce

sch

sci

sj

sse

st

sth

sw

te

the

ts

tsch

tte

tw

ua

ui

ure

urr

ut

uu

vv

wi

wr

ww

xe

xh

xi

ye

y.e

yr

yre

yrrh

ze

zi

Table des illustrations

Titre TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2190/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 51k
Titre TABLE 8.1: ALL THE CONSONANT GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME, CONT.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2190/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 44k
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2190/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 35k
Titre TABLE 8.2: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /ju:/
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2190/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 48k
Titre TABLE 8.: ALL THE VOWEL GRAPHEMES OF WRITTEN ENGLISH, BY RP PHONEME PLUS /ju:/, CONT.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2190/img-5.png
Fichier image/png, 43k
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2190/img-6.png
Fichier image/png, 40k

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