173: Digraphs and trigraphs, complicated spelling patterns

sh, th, tch, dge, gn, mb, and more!


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 173rd episode.

We're coming up on our 5 year anniversary of this podcast, and to celebrate, listen to the end of today's show to learn how you can win a free ebook copy of Pronunciation Pages 2 and a free hour-long pronunciation consultation with me!

We've been having a lot of fun posting to our EnglishAssembly Facebook page based on podcast themes lately. We've also gotten to learn some things about the way our audience thinks about pronunciation, which has been fascinating. A few weeks ago I published a podcast about silent letters, and then posted a word with an unexpected silent letter to the Facebook page every day. From this, I learned that a lot of people view silent letters the way that I view digraphs and trigraphs.

Digraphs and trigraphs: those are two words I'm pretty sure I've never used before on these podcasts. Even if the words are new to you, I'm pretty sure you already understand the concept. A digraph is simply the combination of two letters to represent one sound. For instance, the sh spelling is a digraph. When we see the letters sh, we expect the sh sound (sh sound), as in the words dish or shop. When we see the letters th, we can expect either the voiced or unvoiced th sound, as in the words the and think. A trigraph is a three-letter spelling, like the tch spelling being pronounced as the ch sound in the words watch and catch. Although both vowel sounds and consonant sounds use digraphs and trigraphs, today we're going to only talk about consonant sound digraphs. There are so many vowel sound digraphs that this would end up being a very long episode if we included all of them.

What consonant sounds digraphs or trigraphs can you think of? I'll give you a second to think about it…

How about the letters ph to represent the f sound, as in phone, orphan, and graph?

And what sound comes to mind when I mention the letters ch? Probably the ch sound, as in the words church, teacher, and rich. However, don't forget that the letters ch can also represent the k sound as in chorus, chaos, and ache and the sh sound as in chef, machine, and mustache.

Non-native speakers also often forget about the ng spelling representing the ng sound. The ng sound (ng sound) is different from the n sound (n sound), and it doesn't include a g sound (g sound). I most often hear an accidental g sound added to the ng sound at the end of a word. Say sing, long, and among, not sing(g), long(g), and among(g).

What's the digraph in the word pick p-i-c-k? It's the ck, just like in the words duck, clock, and bucket. When you think of the words duck, clock, and bucket, do you think of the letter c as being silent, or do you think of the letters ck together as simply being pronounced as a k sound?

I think many of you probably don't think of the c as being silent in the ck spelling, which brings me back to the silent letter comments we received on Facebook. When we posted the silent d example in the word Wednesday, we received a reply of a silent d in the word budget. Hmmm. Suddenly things get a little tricky. True, we don't hear a d sound in the word budget, we only hear a j sound. So we could say that the d is silent, but I don't really think of it that way, just like I don't think of the c as being silent in the ck spelling. I think of the d in budget as being part of the dge trigraph.

You see, silent letters are sneaky. They show up where we don't expect them and the only way to conquer these words is to memorize them, one by one. Maybe it's because I've never had the gift of a marvelous memory that some people seem to have, but I prefer to find patterns. If I can find one pattern that works for many words, I only need to memorize that pattern, not the 15 or 25 or 105 words that use that pattern. So, while we can think of the d as being silent in the word budget, we can also think of it as knowing to pronounce the dge spelling as a j sound (j sound). Then, when we see a brand new word with this same spelling, we know that pattern. Then it's suddenly much easier to guess the pronunciation of less common words like fledgeling, nudge, smudge, drudgery, and bludgeon.

Other digraphs that can mask themselves as silent letters include:

  • gn being pronounced as the n sound at the beginning of a word, as in gnome, gnat, and gnaw
  • mb being pronounced as the m sound at the end of a word as in climb, dumb, and comb
  • wr being pronounced as the r sound at the beginning of a word, as in wrong, wrap, and write. Write, w-r-i-t-e, is a homophone with right, r-i-g-h-t

The letters wh at the beginning of a word depend on the sound that follows it. If it's followed by a long o or oo sound, the wh is pronounced as an h sound, as in the words who and whole. The word whole, spelled w-h-o-l-e, is pronounced exactly the same as the word hole, h-o-l-e.

When wh is followed by any other sound, it's pronounced as a w sound. In American English, we seldom use the (hw) pronunciation. So when is pronounced when, not usually (h)when. Which, spelled w-h-i-c-h, is pronounced the same as witch, w-i-t-c-h.

Double letters can also be thought of as digraphs, since we don't say the sound twice even when there are two of the same letter. For example, we don't say two m sounds in summer, or two g sounds in juggle, or two n sounds in sunny, or two l sounds in allow. You get the idea.

Since repetition of information is a great way to learn, our Twitter and Facebook theme for the next two weeks will be digraphs and trigraphs. And speaking of Facebook, remember that I said I'd tell you how you can win a free ebook copy of Pronunciation Pages 2 as well as a free hour-long pronunciation consultation with me?

Here's the deal. March 21st is our 5-year anniversary! I want you to guess how many total downloads we've had of this podcast over the past 5 years. You can tell us by commenting on our Facebook page. You can make one guess per day. So, with 14 days between now and then, you can guess 14 times. On March 22nd, we'll see how many downloads we've had and announce a winner! So, to participate, go to our Facebook page, Facebook.com/EnglishAssembly and give us your guess. That's EnglishAssembly, spelled as one word on Facebook. This is our first competition using Facebook, and if we have a good response from it, you can expect more like it.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world come to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.