Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Quadrigraph Sighting

Often writing systems lack a letter for a sound and that lacuna is covered by a digraph, two letters representing one sound, like English SH and CH. German has a trigraph, SCH which stands for the same single sound that Croatian, Czech, and Slovene represent with the one letter Š.

Danish seems to take the n-graph cake in this respect wasting FOUR letters for the same consonant sound with a quadrigraph. We find it in a few surnames like Schjødt where the first four letters represent the single sound that SH represents in English and Š in those Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet.

The interesting thing about this quadrigraph is that it contains the digraphs for the same sound in several Indo-European languages using the Latin alphabet: CH in French, SH in English, SCH in German (a trigrph), and SJ, which is used in most Danish words.

SCHJ is the only quadrigraph I know of. I know some consider combinations with the GH digraph in English to be quadrigraphs, e.g. eight and though. These are not quadrigraphs, though, for they represent two sounds. Eight represents the sound [eyt] and though, [ðow], i.e. the two sounds of diphthongs, a vowel plus a reduced consonant. This is not the case in Danish. It is true, as I say, that the Danish quadrigraph occurs only in surnames like Schjeldal, Schjelderup, Schjødt, Schjønberg, and Schjønning but they are true quadrigraphs.

Does anyone out there speak a language that has another?

5 Responses to “Quadrigraph Sighting”

  1. Paul Ogden Says:

    I can barely be said to speak German — stumbling about in that language is more like it — but I believe the quadrigraph tsch is used to represent English ch.

    As well, I think it’s fair to say that when the languages/dialects of the Hmong people are written in the Romanized Popular Alphabet, they contain a number of quadrigraphs.

  2. bnjtokyo Says:

    How about “draftsman” in English? The root “draft” ends in two articulated consonants [ft], The plural or third person singular ends in three [fts] which are articulated in careful speech. In normal speech the [t] in “draftsman” would be omitted, but I think it would be retained in careful speech.

  3. Robert Beard Says:

    These four letters represent four sounds. The Danish quadrigraph is four letters that represent a SINGLE sound. Consonant clusters of up to five letters are common in Russian and other languages. But four that stand for only one sound is a genuine rarity.

  4. Peter Collier Says:

    German uses “DSCH” for the voiced palato-alveolar affricate: the phoneme represented in English by “J”.

    It’s rare – it only occurs in loanwords like “DSCHUNGEL” (“JUNGLE”) – but it’s there!

  5. tkowal Says:

    Russian alphabet has a single letter Щ which would require 2 letters in those Slavic languages (ŠČ), 4 letters in English (shch) and 7 letters in German (schtsch)!

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