Časopis Slovo a slovesnost
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Graphics and phonology: correlation and asymmetry

Jiří Nosek



Grafika a fonologie: korelace a asymetrie

One of the theoretical tenets of the Prague Linguistic School is the view that language is a system of signs, and that its constitutive units differ from each other and stand in opposition to each other. Another basic Prague term is that language is a hierarchy of partial levels (planes, sub–systems), viz. phonology, morphology, syntax, lexicon and the utterance level. In addition to these levels is the system of graphics, an area of written language which differs from its spoken counterpart, the phonemes.

However, there is no one–to–one relation between the letters (or graphemes) and the phonemes, though some correlation between the two can be seen. In fact, in earlier scholarship (chiefly in the nineteenth century), the two domains, i. e. written and spoken languages, were frequently mixed up.

In a modern view, the two domains are strikingly different, both in modern English and Czech, and an extensive bibliography can be referred to. See, e. g., the work of Josef Vachek (1973, Written language), which synthesizes his many seminal articles.

The problems of graphics vs. speech were also treated by other scholars. See, e. g., D. L. Bolinger (1946), K. Hansen (1969), V. Fried (1969), C. L. Wrenn (1943), J. Vachek (1973, 1990), J. Nosek (1961). Let us advance a view that there is a correlation and asymmetry between graphics and phonology. However, both graphics and phonology are constituted by different elements, and each has a different task: The graphemes (letters, orthography, spelling) appeal primarily to a reader’s eyesight (see Vachek, 1973, p. 19) while the graphemes appeal to hearing. The written language has a documentary character because it preserves utterances for future reproduction. This does not apply to spoken language which we cannot reproduce from memory. This can be done only if we have gramophone or tape recordings. The written language primarily communicates the rational elements while the phonic level expresses also emotional values.

There is also a disproportion between the silent reading of written text which is shorter than an oral delivery of the same written text.

Both English and Czech use the same analytic alphabet of 24 letters (graphemes), but not the same number of phonemes. However, each of the two languages has a larger number of phonemes than letters. The two languages solve this disproportion in their distinctive ways. Modern Czech uses the diacritic signs (e. g. hooks and length marks) to modify the graphemes, e. g., č (čas), š (šít), ž (žena), ť (tresť), ď (ďábel), ř (řeka), ň (baňka); or the vocalic letters: á (dobrá), é (lékař), í/ý (bílý), ú/ů (úspěch, mužů). These diacritics differentiate the so–called soft consonants from the hard, viz. ť, ď, ň, č, š, ž versus t, d, n, c, s, z, or signal vocalic length: á (dobrá), í (dobří) etc. The use of diacritics is totally absent in English.

Yet English has another means of how to solve the written/spoken discrepancy, viz. the use of digraphs (and polygraphs), i. e. recurrent and stable combinations of graphemes which represent one phoneme each: e. g. the vocalic digraphs OU (house, soul, soup, touch, could), AU (cause), EA (teach, head, great, heart, wear, early), EI (veil, seize, their), OA (coal, broad), OI (noise, choir), OE (shoe, does, potatoes), IE (tie, piece, fierce). Consonant digraphs: TH (bath, that), CH (choose, machine), PH (philosophy, nephew), NG (young), WH (what, who), SC (scout, scene), GH (ghost, enough), etc.

In comparison with English, written Czech has only two digraphs: OU (louka), and CH (chudý) which represent the phoneme /ou/ and /x/ respectively. Let us point out that graphic devices, digraphs and diacritics, may coexist in the same language: alongside the digraphs CH and OU in Czech, there are also the diacritics. We may say that the two devices are mutually exclusive but cooperative. In Czech the diacritic marks never [207]occur in the digraphs CH or OU, although they do in German, e. g. Bäume.

In English there are also stable groupings of letters (polygraphs) consisting of 3 and 4 letters, e. g. EAU (beauty, bureau), IGH (sigh, high), OUGH (though, through, cough, thorough, enough, hiccough), AIGH (straight), EIGH (height, freight, sleigh).

Digraphs in English should be distinguished from letter clusters, i. e. combinations of two identical graphemes. In English they are graphically homogeneous, such as the vocalic EE (flee, coffee, breeches, employee), OO (tooth, blood, moor, brooch), and the consonantal: FF (staff), CC (occur, accept), SS (mission, pass, scissors), BB (sobbing, ebb, rabbit), PP (happen, stopped), TT (button, better), GG (egg), DD (ladder), ZZ (buzz), MM (summer), KK (trekking), LL (all, full, wholly), NN (thinning) etc.

In Czech, double letters are rather rare: měkký, ranní, cenný. We disregard proper names and foreignisms.

Asymmetry exists not only between English and Czech, but also within the two languages themselves. In Czech, the digraphs (polygraphs) do not exclude the use of diacritics, while the English digraphs totally exclude the use of diacritics. A co–existence of digraphs and diacritics may be found also in French, German, Hungarian, Polish etc.

In Czech and English asymmetry occurs also in the grapheme/phoneme relation between the phonic values and the corresponding graphemes. In English, there are silent letters, that is graphemes that are not pronounced and have no phonic counterparts. E. g., the silent B in debt, limb, P in pneumonia, receipt, C in muscle, G in gnaw, H in hour, L in walk, etc. Czech as opposed to English has no silent letters, i. e. the Czech grapheme A is pronounced as /a/ in any position of the word, e. g., ale, ani, mladý, E as /e/, P in pít, pravda. The same applies to the Czech digraphs, e. g., OU mouka, CH chudý. Phonetic ambiguity is also in the Czech grapheme V which is pronounced as /v/ in nový, or as /f/ in včera, because the two sounds are positional allophones of one phoneme. We may conclude that phonetic ambiguity of graphemes and digraphs is a prevailing feature of English. Cf. A is a sign of /ae/ bad, /ei/ face, /a:/ dance, /ɔ/ what, /ɔ:/ all, war, or the digraph AI standing for the phoneme /ei/ fail, /e/ he said, /ai/ aisle, /ɛə/ fair, /ae/ plaid, etc.

Another significant feature of the English graphic system is the power of distinguishing homophones, i. e. words that are equally pronounced but spelt differently. Let us mention the following: /eil/ ale, ail, /beə/ bare, bear, /bi:tʃ/ beech, beach, /weist/ waist, waste, etc. There are some 200 or more homophones in modern English. Again, the very inconsistent English spelling has a significant distinguishing power. Such a phenomenon is rather restricted in Czech, e. g. vést vs. vézt, svést vs. svézt, sběh (lidí, concourse of people) vs. zběh (dezertér), smlsat vs. zmlsat, etc.

Our discussion has shown the graphic system of English as correlated but not identical to the phonological system. Each has its autonomy, and both are rather closed asymmetrical systems. The graphic system (orthography) has also a significant social prestige function: illiterate people are decidedly handicapped and are treated as socially inferior, even more than literate speakers who make mistakes in speech. It is interesting to note that at primary schools, the written form of languages is primarily taught while the spoken form comes second. It seems to suggest that orthography is more stable, and is not subject to great upheavals, at least not in English. This is also confirmed by the historical development.

We hope to have shown the duality of two partial systems based on the binary principle which manifests itself in other areas of language. Last but not least, due to its functions the graphic system is in the centre of standard language and is not on its periphery. The highly inconsistent spelling of English is also a unifying factor for the different phonologies of the English–speaking countries all over the world.




Bolinger, D. L: Visual morphemes. Language, 22, 1946, p. 333–340.

Fried, V.: The notion of diacritics in modern English morphology. In: Brno Studies in English, 8. Brno 1969, p. 61–67.

Hansen, K.: Foreign graphemes and grapheme–phoneme correspondences in modern English. In: Brno Studies in English, 8. Brno 1969, p. 89–93.

Nosek, J.: Grafika moderní angličtiny (Graphics of modern English). Charles University Press, Prague 1991.

Nosek, J.: A systematic analysis of modern English graphics. In: Prague Studies in English, 9. Prague 1961, p. 53–67.

Vachek, J.: Psaný jazyk a pravopis (Written language and orthography). In: Čtení o jazyce a poezii. Prague 1942, p. 231–306.

Vachek, J.: Two chapters on written English. In: Brno Studies in English, 1. Brno 1959, p. 7–39.

Vachek, J.: Written Language. Mouton, The Hague – Paris 1973.

Vachek, J.: The grapheme [y] and [h] in English and Czech. A contribution to contrastive graphemics. In: Brno Studies in English, 18. Brno 1990, p. 11–19.

Wrenn, C. L.: The value of spelling as evidence. Transactions of the Philological Society, 1943, p. 14–39.



Grafika a fonologie: korelace a asymetrie

Grafika a fonologie jsou relativně samostatné, ale korelované systémy v jazyce. Jsou založeny na dualismu, binarismu a na koexistenci dvou podsoustav, jak je nalézáme v mnoha jazycích. Binární princip se uplatňuje na všech rovinách jazykové stavby. Koexistence dvojích soustav však neznamená jejich totožnost: obě tyto oblasti nejsou souměrné.

Pojmy znaku a funkce, jež charakterizují Pražskou lingvistickou školu, platí také o vztahu mluvené a psané normy. V psané normě písmena zastupují fonémy. Psaná norma uchovává promluvu pro pozdější reprodukci a vyjadřuje spíše její racionální složky. Tiché čtení psaného textu je kratší než hlasité čtení téhož textu. V češtině i angličtině je nesouměrnost mezi grafémy a fonémy. Česká grafická soustava používá diakritických znamének: á, é, í/ý, ó, ů/ú, š, č, ř, ž, ň, jež zcela chybějí angličtině. Aby vyhověla požadavkům fonémů, používá angličtina spřežek (polygrafů), tj. opakujících se kombinací písmen, jako např. OU (house), EA (teach, ready, great, heart), CH (chose, machine) atd. Angličtina má také spřežky o 3 nebo více písmenech, např. EAU (beautiful, bureau), OUGH (though, bough, through, thorough) atd. Grafická soustava češtiny má pouze dvě spřežky, OU (louka) a CH (chudý).

Zdvojeniny písmen EE (feel, breeches, coffee, threepence), OO (tool, good, flood, floor), BB (rabbit), PP (apple) jsou rysem specifickým pro angličtinu, avšak jsou vzácné v češtině, srov. KK (měkký), NN (denní). Anglická písmena H, J, Q nemohou být zdvojena.

Asymetrie převládá také ve vztazích grafémů k fonémům. Většina anglických grafémů je dvojznačná nebo víceznačná. V angličtině jsou také němá (nevyslovovaná) písmena, jež se nečtou, nemají odpovídající hláskové protějšky, jako např. němé P v receipt, němé H v hour, forehead apod. V češtině nejsou. Homofona, tj. slova vyslovovaná stejně, ale s různým významem, se liší různým pravopisem. Srov. např. české mít proti mýt, bít proti být. V češtině jsou vzácná. Jak v angličtině, tak i ve spisovné češtině nejsou grafické soustavy ničím okrajovým nebo zanedbatelným, nýbrž jsou v centru jazykové stavby.

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Slovo a slovesnost, ročník 54 (1993), číslo 3, s. 206-208

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