Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Help me understand why <igh> is the grapheme instead of <gh>

I could go either way with words like <high> <sight> etc.  where there is no other vowel involved.  It could either be a long-i phonem for the <i> followed by a silent, etymological marker <gh> or the <igh> representing the long-i.

However, it makes more sense to me that

the <ei> in <eight> represents long-a as in <vein> with a silent <gh> than it does to say that here the <igh> represents the long-a phoneme.  Because when you get to a word like <straight>, it makes sense that the <ai> represents a long-a phoneme followed by a silent <gh>.  Otherwise, why do we need the other <a> if <igh> is representing that phoneme already. 

As for <height>, the <ei> grapheme can represent the long-i phoneme, so that would work well if it is a <gh> grapheme.  But if the grapheme is <igh> for <i>, then what is the <e>?

Since we are supposed to use the simplest explanation, I can't see why <gh> is not simplest.


Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I entered this community of scholars nearly two years ago with the very same question, Kris. I am still grappling with it. I was taught <ough>, <aight>, <<aught>, <eigh> which I now clearly see as nonsense. The most elegant explanation to me, however, still appears to be a <gh> digraph that both represents a phoneme (/f/) and has an etymological function with null pronunciation but I continue to explore the question.

My reasoning is thus:
• The vowel digraphs all serve a phonological function that appears in other words without a <gh> so, in my mind, there is no need to have a <ugh> or <igh> trigraph.
o The <ei> digraph as found in <weight> and <sleight> can easily be found serving the same phonological function in <rein> and <either>;
the <ou> digraph as found in <bough>, <though>, <through>, <rough>, and <bought> can be found in <trout>, <soul>, <group>, <trouble>, and <fought> although I can only find words that use this vowel digraph to represent / ɔ/ in other words that also include <gh> which does indeed give me pause;
o the <ai> digraph as found in <straight> can be easily found in <rain>, etc.;
o the <au> digraph as found in <taught> is commonly used to represent /ɔ/;
o and of course <i> as in <sight> can easily be found performing its ‘long’ i function in many words
• No encumbering <ough>, <aigh>, etc. tetragraphs are necessary either.
• I have also looked at it from the perspective that it is only the first vowel that is representing the vowel phoneme in each of those tetragaphs and this is what I come up with:
o Does <e> ever represent /eɪ/ or /aɪ/?
o If <igh> is the trigraph representing /aɪ/ in <height> then what is the <e>’s function? Although one explanation is its etymologic and homographic function, couldn’t a perfectly valid alternative be that it is the vowel digraph representing the vowel phoneme with the <gh> serving the etymologic function?
o The grapheme <o> can certainly represent /oʊ/ and the phonemes found in <to>, <mother>, and <office> but does it ever represent /aʊ/ on its own?
o Does <a> ever represent /ɔ/ on its own? Do words such as <ball> and <talk> fit this scenario, with the <l> as a null pronunciation etymological marker? I used linguistic/synthetic phonics for a long time and <al> was considered the digraph representing /ɔ/ in these words, however, after exposure to this community and my own research, I believe the former offers a more consistent explanation when observed with other related words.
• What about <ugh> representing /f/? I fell in love with the <ugh> trigraph representing /f/ after an initial struggle to understand it. However, now I am still of two minds. The vowel graphemes and their corresponding phonemes in words such as <cough> and <rough> have been covered above but what about the case of <laugh>?
o Of course, <a> is often used used to represent the /æ/ phoneme but is <au> ever used to represent it? The only word I can find is <aunt>. For me this is sufficient despite its various regional pronunciations (see <either> above).

So, as you can see, I am looking at this all mostly from a phonological perspective. I have looked at the history of words such as <rough> and <ought> and the myriad spellings (and presumably pronunciations) that were used to represent them. It is easy for me to see why a <gh> is a necessary and valuable part of these words. It is not easy for me to come to grips with the supposed elegance of <ugh>. If <ugh> is capable of acting as a grapheme for a phoneme and as an etymological marker, why isn’t <gh>? Why are two trigraphs necessary (<igh> and <ugh>) when <gh> can account for all cases?

I understand that phonology is subsidiary to morphology and etymology and that letters are tools with which to create graphemes that represent phonemes that, in turn, represent meaningful units of spoken language but I don’t understand why my hypothesis doesn’t account for the morphology, etymology, and meaning in these words.

I don’t see a morphological or etymological reason why <gh> cannot be the etymological marker in these words and the vowels cannot be representing the vowel phonemes. I have taken Gina’s OE Lexinar and still see this as an appropriate analysis. Needless to say, I have not yet absorbed all of the information from that Lexinar (and many others), nor do I have the vast knowledge she and others have so it is infinitely possible that I have simply not grasped the necessary facts to understand why my thinking is insufficient in understanding why these trigraphs are considered the most elegant explanation. I have come a long way in my understanding and in my ability to think about the issues but I have not been able to come to a conclusion I feel completely comfortable with yet. It is irritating to feel that I am missing some vital point but I am (semi)satisfied with my current stance.

Brett Iimura
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Hey Kris,

I'm only going to be able to offer a very brief response to start considering your question.

It seems to me that a key part of your argument about the lack of a need for <igh> in words like <eight> has to do with the fact that there is an <ei> in word <vein>. But we have to be careful about what we decide based on the existence of a common letter sequence in more than one grapheme. There is a <ch> letter sequence in a word like <catch>, but that does not discount the fact that the final grapheme in that word is the trigraph <tch>.

I suspect that you have Gina Cooke's LEX Grapheme cards.

Let me recommend that you study the analysis that she offers for the <ei> digraph, and the <igh> and <ugh> trigraphs before you draw your own conclusions. Test whether what she offers clarity to your question.

You state "We are supposed to use the simplest explanation." I'm not sure exactly where that comes from, and exactly what you mean by "simplest." It may be from an interpretation of "Ocam's Razor" that I often see, but which I think is a misrepresentation of the idea.

An assertion related to Ocam's Razor that I often use is the idea that "scientific inquiry seeks the deepest structures that account for the greatest number of cases." I've pasted some information about this notion at the bottom of this post.

I also point to the concept of "elegance"

So for me, the question is does the analysis of <igh> as a trigraph -- and/or perhaps an etymological marker -- in words like <eight> explain more spellings than the proposal that words like <eight> use a digraph <ei> and <gh>. The scientific understanding has nothing to do with which is description is easier to understand, but which description is more elegant and explains more data.

Here are some challenges I would like to consider about the hypothesis that <eight> uses a <gh> digraph.

It is a rich question you pose Kris. I don't have any clear answers for you, but I do recommend investigating the research Gina offers in her Lex cards, and that you always be careful that we don't create new unnecessary orthographic conventions or structures because we want to understand a few spellings. I think that the idea of "simplest answer" is supposed to be about the elegant answer -- the one that invokes the fewest entities.

And here's a paste of information about Occam's Razor from my Mactionary that may help guide this investigation.

Occam's razor (also written as Ockham's razor and in Latin lex parsimoniae, which means 'law of parsimony') is a problem-solving principle devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian. The principle states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Peter Bowers
There are no comments posted here yet