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Spelling VI: Phonograms

Part six of our Spelling Series:

Oy, Oi, Those Diphthongs!

diphthong – A complex speech sound beginning with one vowel sound and moving to another vowel or semivowel position within the same syllable (Webster’s II, 1984).

Somehow it helps me a little that the definition of a diphthong uses the word “complex?”  Because that word sounds complicated.  Its roots go way back through French and Latin to two Greek words meaning, “two sounds.”  Not so complicated, right?

We could also refer to these letter combinations as two-letter (or three or four-letter) phonograms.

We’ve talked about the vowel combinations, phonograms or diphthongs, that can make the sounds of each of the vowels’ names.  Of course, there are still a few more vowel combinations, but we’ve narrowed the field a bit!

Ow may not look like a vowel combination, but it has the same sounds as ou, which can have either the sound in now or the sound in know.  It is likely that ow came into use, though it has the same sounds as ou, for a couple of reasons.  English words do not typically end in u.  Perhaps nou and knou just looked odd and difficult to pronounce to the early scribes.  Without it we would also run into awkward-looking words like flouer, and oue. What if we had words like yellouing, mellouing, or shadouy?  

Sometimes ou sounds more like uh, but this is probably a change in pronunciation somewhere along the line rather than an actual spelling oddity.  In a few instances ou may also sound like the oo in good – could, would, and should.  

The reason for having oy and oi is probably the same as for ow and ou. English words don’t end in i, so we could not have boi, toi, or enjoi. It has not been too many hundreds of years since spelling began to be standardized.  In the 1611 King James Bible, there is much interchanging of diphthongs, sometimes even when diphthongs or entire words recur in the same sentence.

This story repeats itself when it comes to aw and au.  Same sounds, different positions.  Besides the ubiquitous you, English words don’t end in u.  So we have claw not clau, draw not drau, and saw not sau, etc.  

In our modern pronunciation, the diphthong ea may have one of three sounds: ee (eat), eh (head), or ay (break).  Originally, they all sounded the same.  Ay-ut, hay-ud, bray-uk.    

The phonogram ar doesn’t exactly fit the above definition of a diphthong because the initial vowel sound doesn’t move to another vowel or semivowel sound.  But since it hasn’t done anything to merit an article all to itself, it has to go somewhere.  You may disagree with me if you happen to be an ardent observer of National Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Aaargh, Matey!

Similar to ar’s category is or.  This one is fairly easy, especially if you explain that the phonogram is also a word.  

The last category-less phonogram that begins with a vowel is ed.  Also, not really a diphthong, but an ending.  The thing to point out to beginning readers is that it may have one of three sounds, ed, d, or t. There isn’t a rule for this, but you may point out that King James and Co. would have said, start-ed, lov-ed, miss-ed.  Our ears are pretty good at telling us which sound is correct.  Try to say startd, or lovt.

One of the rules in The Writing Road to Reading is that there are five ways to spell the sound er.  Er, the er of her, ir the ir of first, ur the ur of nurse, wor the er of works, and ear the ear of early.  The mnemonic for these is, “Her first nurse works early.”  You have probably already surmised that these would not all have sounded the same to the aforementioned king.    

There are only eight of the 70 phonograms we haven’t covered: kn, gn, wr, dge, none of which started out with silent letters.  

Ph for the f sound shows up in words derived from Greek.  

The sh sound made with ti or ci.

Si, which may say either sh or zh.  Most often, this phonogram sounds like sh when it follows an s (session), and like zh when it follows a vowel (vision).     

There now!  We’ve covered all 70 of the most common phonograms.  The Writing Road to Reading lists a few others as uncommon phonograms such as gh as in ghost, but we may cover those later.  

Let’s move on to some of the rules that may help with spelling and reading.

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