Monday, 26 October 2009

sh!

As we know, English [ʃ] can be spelt not only sh but also in a number of other ways, as seen in the examples ocean, machine, precious, sugar, conscience, compulsion, pressure, mission, creation. However, sh is clearly felt as the basic way to spell this sound in English. Why? Why did we choose this particular digraph?
Historically speaking, the basic problem is that classical Latin had no palatoalveolars. In consequence, languages which use the Latin alphabet and which do have these sounds have not inherited any single way of representing them.
Greek had and has no palatoalveolars, either. So the Greek alphabet, too, lacks a letter for the sound [ʃ].
In Cyrillic, on the other hand, there is a letter used for just this purpose: Шш, presumably modelled on the Hebrew letter shin ש. This is also the origin of the Arabic ش.
The Armenian and Georgian alphabets also have special [ʃ] letters, upper- and lower-case: Շշ and Ⴘშ respectively.
Getting back to the Roman alphabet, I do not know why the predominant English way of writing [ʃ] is the digraph sh. French expresses this sound as ch. Words that in standard French now have [ʃ], and are so spelt, are (or were) pronounced in Norman French with [tʃ], and that is supposed to be the reason we use ch in English for the affricate.
For our fricative German writes sch and Polish sz. Does anyone know the historical reasons for these choices?
Hungarian writes it with the simple s, reserving the spelling sz for the sound [s]. Czech, Slovak, Lithuanian, Latvian, Slovene and Croatian all use the háček-bearing š. Romanian and Turkish use a subscript cedilla or comma, ş.
We’d better not go into Swedish too deeply: rs, sj, kj.

15 comments:

  1. The reason is probably that first, most of these sounds continued to have a different pronunciation when sh was already [ʃ], and secondly - and relatedly - that it's unambiguous. You still have [s] or [sj] for most cases of s in front of u &.

    German, Hungarian, Polish - complex, consequence of MHG sibilants and OHG sk-.

    Swedish - well, you said it: we'd better not go into that too deeply. (A North Swedish default comment would be to draw the air sharply in, producing an ingressive sibilant.)

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  2. According to Scragg's "A history of English spelling", p. 46, the sequence was as follows:

    * In old English, /ʃ/ was spelled SC

    * Post-Norman conquest: SC changed to SCH. This devlopment was necessary to avoid ambiguity after an influx of French/Norman words that had SC representing /sk/

    * At the end of the fourteenth century, SCH was simplified to SH in London spelling. Other regional orthographies used SS or X for the sound.

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  3. "sh" is also used for ʃ in Albanian - the language's name for itself is "shqip". The "q", rather perversely in my opinion, represents a voiceless palatal plosive.

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  4. And the use of "x" would be the same as Portuguese and Pinyin, no?

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  5. anonymous

    about pinyin: yes and no, but rather no.
    x represents a voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative, not a post-alveolar (aka palato-alveolar), sh represents a voiceless retroflex fricative.

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  6. And in medieval Spanish x was used to spell this sh sound too. In the sixteenth century or earlier, the voiced equivalent, spelt j, merged with this sound. Then this merged voiceless sound became velar/uvular around the sixteenth century or later. In later spelling reforms of Spanish the x spelling was removed in favour of the j for the merged sound. Thus we had dixo "said" in medieval Spannish, now spelt dijo. If the x spelling hadn't been removed, there would ambiguity with later Latin borrowings. Thus exacto, /esakto/ or /exakto/?!
    Dan McCarthy.

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  7. @Anonymous:

    Hence Don Quixote's original pronunciation is partly preserved in the French "Don Quichotte" (and equivalents in some other European languages).

    "Mexico" was based on an Aztec word that had [ʃ].

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  8. I've always assumed it's not a coincidence that our three main digraphs all contain h (ch, sh, th), but I've never known why. Any ideas?

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  9. And what about the different pronunciation of schedule and scheme?

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  10. @ryan: I believe the usual explanation is that Normanfrench scribes saw the sounds as "a sort of s, sort of t, osort f c". (C being ts in French art the time).

    They used he letter h as a sort of shorthand for "sort oF'.

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  11. @Ryan:

    TH comes from its use in Latin to transcribe Greek theta (which was orginally an aspirated t, but later because an interdental fricative like English "th"). TH began to replace the runic "thorn" character in the Middle English period, and seems to have eventually triumphed mainly as a result of difficulties in printing thorn.

    CH comes from Old French. I don't know why the French chose CH to represent the result of fronting Latin /k/ (e.g. campus -> champs).

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  12. David Marjanović31 October 2009 at 22:32

    What kind of time does my stupid provider choose to require renewal of the monthly subscription!?! It refused to send my comment. Now I have to type the whole thing again.

    Compulsion has [ʃ]? Not [ʒ]? ~:-|

    German: First sk/sc/sg /sk/ turned into sch /sx/, which is preserved in Dutch as [sχ]. Then the fricative clusters were eliminated: chs /xs/ changed back into /ks/ (a partial reversal of the High German Consonant Shift!), and sch /sx/ became the new /ʃ/. The spellings remained, and sch was generalized to most other sources of /ʃ/ (that is, morpheme-initial former /s/ in front of consonants except /p/ and /t/ where the change may have happened later or something).

    They used he letter h as a sort of shorthand for "sort oF'.

    The same with z must be the origin of the Polish sz, cz, rz, and ż (which apparently once was zz.

    These digraphs were also used in Czech before Jan Hus reformed both the faith and the spelling (the latter in his book De orthographia bohemica). Alas, the Poles, having already made Catholicism a part of their national identity, rejected both his heresy and his heretical orthography, and now need on average two letters for every consonant.

    In old English, /ʃ/ was spelled SC

    Was it already [ʃ], or was it [stʃ]? The latter sound, if it persisted long enough, would very easily explain the Norman spelling sch.

    The Italian sci must have taken a similar path, BTW.

    Other regional orthographies used SS or X for the sound.

    Wow, I had no idea...

    The "q", rather perversely in my opinion, represents a voiceless palatal plosive.

    That's what the English Wikipedia says, but does [c] really exist in any kind of Albanian? I was told q and gj are [kʲ] and [gʲ] in the south, and [tɕ] and [dʑ] in the north (where they sometimes merge into /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, leading to confusions in spelling). This isogloss extends beyond Albanian through Macedonian, where it concerns the letters ќ and ѓ.

    The English Wikipedia also says [c ɟ] are the Greek allophones of /k g/ before front vowels; the German one says [kʲ gʲ] are standard and various affricates occur in certain dialects, and it does not mention [c ɟ] at all...

    However, the Albanian orthography most certainly is perverse in the sense that it seems to be deliberately designed to be unlike any other on Earth (while staying strictly phonemic). So, we get a unitary q but a digraph gj, and we get sh zh xh for /ʃ ʒ dʒ/ (the latter is logical because x alone is /dz/), but /tʃ/ is not *ch (which doesn't occur at all, even though c is /ts/), but ç like in Turkish.

    about pinyin: yes and no, but rather no.
    x represents a voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative


    In my limited experience, this pronunciation ([ɕ]) is limited to Southerners who don't retroflex (which means they pronounce both sh and s as [s]). In Beijing, the dorso-palatal sibilant is used, a sound so rare globally that it lacks an IPA symbol. In my impression it fills the acoustic space between [ɕ], [ç], and [sʲ] (pronunciations closer to the [sʲ] end of the spectrum are considered girlish).

    And in medieval Spanish x was used to spell this sh sound too.

    Still in Basque.

    difficulties in printing thorn

    Apparently, all typesets were somehow made in the Netherlands... Pity, really.

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  13. David Marjanović31 October 2009 at 22:40

    Forgot to close the parenthesis in my 5th paragraph.

    TH comes from its use in Latin to transcribe Greek theta (which was orginally an aspirated t, but later because an interdental fricative like English "th").

    The German ch most likely has an analogous origin.

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  14. Bernd Fleischmann18 March 2010 at 12:14

    You wrote: "I do not know why the predominant English way of writing [ʃ] is the digraph sh." As others wrote, the Germanic /ʃ/ is the result of lenition of /k/ after /s/. In English and German probably through the steps /sk/>/sç/>/ʃ/. This explains the spelling "sh" in English and "sch" in German because [ç] was represented as "h" in Old English as in "niht" [nɪçt]=modern English "night". In German [ç] is represented by "ch".

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