Real Spellers

English Makes Sense!

Real spellers know that the fundamental function of orthography is the representation of sense and meaning and that the prime ‘engine’ of this function is orthographic morphology, the structure and sequencing of meaning.


The written representation of a word starts with what it means. The first step is to identify and represent its base, after which we complete the construction with any other necessary elements.


That is orthographic morphology, a term in which the idea of ‘meaning’ is at the forefront.


It is, though, easy to lose sight of the fact of the primacy of representing meaning is also the conceptual basis of the other constituent concepts of English orthography: etymology and phonology. In both of those, too, meaning is paramount.

  • Orthographic etymology is the representation of the interconnection of meaning.
  • Orthographic phonology is the representation of the pronunciation of meaning

This article is about a quite specific aspect of meaning that is signalled by orthographic phonology.


The principal way in which orthographic phonology is governed by meaning is that it is not the entire pronunciation of a word that needs to be represented as text; it is only the points in the stream of pronunciation that determine a word’s meaning that are represented in a spelling.


Here’s a simple example. The word represented as <doing> is universally pronounced by native English speakers as [‘duwiŋ], with the medial semi-vowel phone [w]. Pronounced by everyone as it may be, that phone [w] is no part of the pronunciation of the meaning of <doing>, so is not represented in the spelling of the word either.


But “sounds” in words that are no part of their spelling is only one of the woes of edubabble’s obsession with “sound-letter correspondences”. The reverse is also a fact of spelling; there are  letters in spellings that represent no part of their pronunciation, as is witnessed by such basic and common words as <two> and <friend>.


In such cases the schemes and systems in which letters are supposed to “say” things are now compelled to accuse letters that “say” nothing of “silence”!


But it is not only such etymological marker letters as the <w> in <two> or the <i> in <friend> that methods and programs call ‘silent’. They also stigmatize as "silent" constituent letters of graphemes that that they cannot explain. The classic case is the so-called “silent <k>” of words such as <know>, the actual reason for which is beyond the ken of phonics.


Real spellers know that the criterion of representing meaning is the driving principle of orthographic phonology too, and that it has two interrelating dimensions:

  • phonemes that are the units of pronunciation by which meaning is signalled;
  • graphemes by which the phonemes are represented in written text. 

Grapheme choices themselves can signal aspects of meaning; a simple example is the presence of the digraph <ph> representing /f/; it signals a Greek connection that itself points to a certain semantic register.


A particularly fascinating English grapheme is the initial digraph <wr>. More specifically than just signalling a general semantic field it can point to a quite specific constituent in the meaning of elements in which it is present; the idea of “twisting”.


Here, first, is the phonological diagram that represents this digraph.


          digraph wr


In one respect, of course, the digraph <wr> is of restricted interest: it represents only the one phoneme /r/, and then only when that phoneme is initial in its element.


In other respects <wr> is of considerable interest, not least because of the presence of the letter <w> as a constituent of it.


As well as the single-letter grapheme <w> and the digraph <wr> there are four other English digraphs that contain the letter <w>; real spellers know what they are, the phonemes that they represent, and the circumstances that govern their use.


Now to your orthographic project.

  • Use Word Searcher to assemble an evidence bank of spellings with initial <wr>.
  • Identify those with with clear denotational connections with “twisting”.
  • Use at least two dictionaries to verify the derivations of any spellings in which you do not perceive the presence of the idea of “twisting”.
  • Use Etymonline to determine the roots of words that do contain the idea of “twisting”. 

When you have assembled, annotated and sorted your evidence, work with this tutorial film.




So now I have dangled the bait, it is with bated breath that I await news of your discoveries that will undoubtedly extend my own knowledge of this fascinating digraph.



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