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The graphemes

Of written English

In written English there are over 500 relations between letters and sounds, known as ‘graphemes’. The exact number depends on how the graphemes are counted. Some graphemes, like the E in me, he, she and we, only occur in ‘functors’, the words and parts of words which mainly express relations between different parts of the sentence or, as in these cases, refer only in the case of a particular speech act. Only functors have contracted forms like n’t for not, often changing the sound of the word next to them, as in can’t and don’t. In lexical words, expressing the main content of the sentence, many graphemes only occur in particular positions in the syllable, like KN in knot in the onset (before the vowel), like GUE in plague in the coda (after the vowel) or like MM in hammer between a short, stressed vowel and an unstressed vowel.

Speakers are sensitive to these differences in various ways. Stammers mainly occur on content words. Speech errors mainly relate different content words or different parts of content words to one another. And the natural processes of everyday speech are almost entirely specific to particular sorts of content words or functors. So the changing of the D of good into a B next to the M of morning in “Good morning” as GOOB MORNING is specific to the right and left edges within what are known as ‘noun phrases’. It does not either occur in the name Skidmore or between the D of had and the M of many in “He had many problems.” And similarly, the vowel in not gets lost only when it occurs as a negative marker in can’t, don’t. didn’t, wouldn’t and so on.

A logically insolulable problem arises with respect the six short vowels in RP hip, hen, hut, hut, hot, and put, with only five single letters to express them. There is no non-arbitrary way of expressing the contrast between the vowels in hut and put without going beyond the one letter schema, as in foot. This confounds the distinction between the vowels in foot and food.

When scholars from France, Germany and England got together in the late 19th century to devise the International Phonetic Alphabet, they chose the historic U grapheme in put as a standard and invented an entirely new grapheme for the vowel in RP hut – an upside down V. (All of those involved in this enterprise were native speakers of prestigious varieties of their languages).

The special cases – the functors

The forms listed here include some of the commonest words and parts of words of the language.

a

an

the (the)

who (what, when, when, where, whether, why)

here

there

his

her

its

my

your

our

their

be

do

gone

done

is

are

was

were

have

has

had

does

I

you

we (me, she)

they

’ll (I’ll, you’ll, he’ll. she’ll. it’ll, we’ll, they’ll)

’ve (I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve)

’s (he’s, she’s, it’s)

’re (we’re, you’re. they’re)

’d (I’d, you’d, we’d, they’d)

n’t (couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t)

ain’t

can’t

don’t

pats

pads

patches (misses, wishes, buzzes, wedges)

The sounds of content (lexical) words

Short vowels

I

bit

funny, physics

honey

busy

menace

build

creation, bullet, recipe, enough, courteous

foreign

E

end

friend

bury

head

ate

said

Geoffrey

Thames

A

am

O

odd

cough

want

U

under

one, done, money

son, Monday

does

blood

worry

couple

OO

foot

put

could

ER (‘Schwa’)

letter

actor

hangar

model

gerbil

bottom

chameliion, octogenarian, hosannah, phantom, modal, of

awful, genius, uxorious

another, sporran, general, media, agenda

villain, mountainous

Saturday

treasure

martyr

rigour

enormous

borough

cheatah

theatre

feel, foil, file, foal, file, fail,  fuel

mitten

fasten

mutton

little. castle, wiggle, article

Long vowels

EE

eel

eat

scene, scheme, these

conceive

field

key

quay

ski

esprit

people

amoeba

paediatrics, aeon

AR

arm

father

heart

halve,

bazaar

bizarre

catarrh

blah

OR

or

door

war

oar

mourn

more

borne

saw

all

walk

haul

ought

awe

OO

food, voodoo, gobbledigook

you

who

two

rude

through

impugn

flu

juice

canoe

YU

tune

new

ewe

beautiful

queue

Hugh

Zeus

Diphthongs

IE

mine

icy

die

Jedi

child

find

fly

idle

high

sign

height

either

dyke

buy, guy

isle

aisle

Menai

MacKay

eye

AE

name

rain

say

lazy

great

sundae

straight

eight

grey, survey

gaol

gauge

duvet

café

OH

toe

no

boat

know

soul

though

depot

chateau

eau de Cologne

owe

oh

OU

out

now

plough

OI

join, boil

boy

buoy

ERR

her

err

hurt

purr

sir

worse

scourge

earn

colonel

Consonants

Stops

B

bee, job, habit

ebb, rabbit

D

die, red, body

add, adder

G

get, gorilla, leg, sugar

egg

guess, guerilla

rogue

spaghetti, dinghy

P

pit, tip, copy

happy

T

toe, hat, pity

putt, otter

Thomas

debt, subtle

ptarmigan, receipt,

endict

yacht

K

kettle, sky, junket, kangaroo, look, kayak

cat, scare, acorn, treacle, icicle, comic, mic, chocolate,

lick, bullock, tickle, rocket

account, tobacco

character, school, chamelion, orchid, schizophrenia. monarch

quiche, quay

cheque, antique

appliqué

Affricates

CH

chew, touch, touchy

catch, catchy

ciao,

Czech

Gucci

J

jew, Jerusalem, Raj

badge, badger

adjust, adjective

George, Geoffrey, age, strange, vegetable,

gin, gestate, Reginald

Fricatives

V

van, river

give

skivvy

of

Z

zoo

jazz, buzzer

size

blaze

please

easy, business, prism

czar

xylophone

GE

rouge, largesse

treasure

seizure

jeté

casualty

F

fair, roof

safe, chafe, life

toffee

often

laugh

photograph, Ralph, zephyr

S

sock, bus, Paris

mess, fossil

ceiling, democracy

accept

face

house

castle,

listen

science

schism

sword

psalm

façade

SH

shop, rush, cushion

mission

schedule

cache

machine

vicious

essential

sluice

ratio

station

TH

think, three, bath, pithy

THE

feather

bathe

Glottal

H

hat, hotel

Nasals

M

man, ham

hammer

damn,

climb

Emmanuel

drachm

phlegm

prism

N

nine, den, honey

innate, Finn, funnel

know

gnat, foreign, reign

pneumatic

mnemonic

NG

wing

finger

plank, monkey

NN

unnatural

Liquids

L

lip, elbow, although, awful, fuel, howl, polymath

all, allow, kill, fully

R

ray, scary

arrow,

wrong

rhythm

diarrhoea, haemorrhage

Semi-vowels – glides

W

wet

white

Y

yell

Clusters

AIR

share

prayer

mayor

wear

air

aeroplane

EAR

ear

IRE

fire

tyre

OIR

coir

OUR

hour

GZ

exam

KS

ox

exciting

axe

accept

KW

quick

GW

Gwendolyn

iguana

DYU

due

dew

TYU

tune

Tewkesbury

STYU

steward

Stuart