Is ar a digraph? Is er a digraph? What I have found online is mixed. If er isn’t a digraph then the number of phonemes in butcher is 5, if it is then there are 4.
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Comments (3)
1Tuesday, 09 November 2010 19:48

Hello Shelley! (and fellow orthographists!)

To do graphemic analysis of <butcher> I first want to test if this is a base or a complex word. A quick look at the origin in my Oxford does not resolve the question fully for me.

ORIGIN Middle English : from an Anglo-Norman French variant of Old French bochier, from boc ‘he-goat,’ probably of the same ultimate origin as buck 1 .

Etymonline offers this citation...
c.1300, from Anglo-Norm. boucher, from O.Fr. bochier "butcher, executioner," probably lit. "slaughterer of goats" (12c., Mod.Fr.boucher), from bouc "male goat," from Frank. *bukk (see buck (n.1)) or Celtic *bukkos "he-goat." Related: Butchered; butchering. Figurative sense of "brutal murderer" is attested from 1520s. The verb is recorded from 1560s.

Although I don't think of a <butcher> as one who "butches" I wanted to see if there was any connection between these words.  There does seem to be at least an etymological connection!

butch |bətʃ| informal
manlike or masculine in appearance or behavior, typically aggressively or ostentatiously so.
a mannish lesbian, often contrasted with a more feminine partner. Compare with femme.
ORIGIN 1940s: perhaps an abbreviation of butcher .

However, it turns out that the morphological analysis of <butcher> as a base or as a base with a suffix <butch + er> is not pertinent to your question. Either way <er> occurs within a morpheme.

In my pronunciation of <butcher> I cannot detect two distinct phonemes associated with the <er>, so I am inclined to describe <er> as a digraph. I was asking a similar question to my linguist friend Gina this weak. I wanted to know if she analysed <ear> as a trigraph as in <fear> or even the base <ear>!  

For a long time I considered this an <ea> digraph representing the 'long <e>' (in the IPA /i/) followed by an /r/, but I was unsure as I know that people talk about "<r> controlled vowels".
While I'm not sure there is a definitive answer, my current working hypothesis is that <ear> is a trigraph for the second phoneme in a word like <fear>, which is the same phoneme you would also use in the word <beer>, so <eer> is another trigraph.

Your hypothesized <er> grapheme strikes me as even more clearly a digraph. I only feel one phone in this phoneme associated with this letter string. The only other option I could see would be to consider <r> a grapheme and the <e> as some non-graphemic marker, but I see no reason to hypothesize that.

I hope that this analysis of mine may is not more confusing than helpful! I could have just answered that I think <er> is a digraph, but I wanted to share my thinking to show you and my other orthographic friends. If there are important flaws in my reasoning, I suspect Gina or Melvyn can help me and thus the rest of us when we run into such questions in the future.

2Tuesday, 09 November 2010 19:51
I’m satisfied with <er> as a digraph — in non-rhotic varieties of English (where they tend not to pronounce final <r>, as in England), a word like sister would be pronounced /sɪstə/, so it would appear that that second syllable has a single phoneme.

Fun, fun!  Keep up the good work!

3Wednesday, 10 November 2010 19:41

My two cents... I had the same trouble with <ar>, <or>, <er> etc.. Melvyn sent me a wonderful document on Rhoticism which I am sharing because I think it's helpful. (Melvyn, I hope you don't mind)

We must talk about the usefulness of teaching "the schewa" or neutral vowel. How do we know when to choose the digraph <ar> <or> and <er>. In <doctor> the <or> it only makes sense if we look at related words like <doctorial>
Other examples: singular - singularity popular - popularity history - historical separate - to pull apar

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