I want a third, preferrably referenced opinion on a terminological dispute here. The problem is the following (though I am avoiding the actual example to avoid unnecessary complication):

In German phonetics, consonant duplication indicates a shortening of the preceding vowel. So, e.g., Schafe is pronounced [ʃaːfə] and schaffe is pronounced [ʃafə]. In the latter example, I would call ff a digraph, as it encodes a single phoneme, namely [f].

Now it may happen that two identical consonants stand next to each other due to word composition, e.g., Schaf ([ʃaːf]) and Fell ([fɛl]) are composed to Schaffell. Now if you ask native speakers to very clearly prounce the latter word or if they are dictating it and want to make sure to be understood, they will probably say [ʃaːffɛl], but in natural pronuciation, the two [f] sounds will merge and the pronunciation will be [ʃaːfɛl] or [ʃaːfːɛl]. Note that the first vowel would never be shortened. (Also, experts would avoid to typeset Schaffell without an ff ligature.)

Finally, the controversy is this: Would ff in Schaffell be called a digraph? Or, more abstractly: If two phonemes are merged in pronunciation across a morpheme boundary, would the corresponding letters be called a digraph? The arguments so far boil down to:

  • Yes, it would be called a digraph, because ff corresponds to a single sound.
  • No, it would not be called a digraph, because in the relevant phonetics, ff does not encode a single sound in this word (though it does elsewhere).

I am looking for answers supporting either of these sides (or a third alternative) that are backed up with further arguments or references (other than Wikipedia).

  • Note that Schaffell must not be written with an ff-ligature (ff). Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 8:17
  • This is not a linguistic question at all. It's about the orthographic system of one particular language, and the terminology appropriate to refer to it. Call it a digraph if you want to call it a digraph; it's not language, it's technology.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 19:22
  • @jlawler: I disagree that it’s specific to a certain language. I might as well have asked about ss in the English misspell. As for the general on-topicness: How does this differ from other questions about orthographies in general? Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 19:36
  • 1
    Orthographies are technological representations of language, not real languages. As technology, they are full of well- and poorly-designed arbitrary features, and arcane terminology to describe them. There is no common definition of "digraph", because there is no standard way to use it, except to indicate that it is a unit orthographical mark, composed of two marks (di graph), which may or may not be identical. So, as I said, call it a digraph if it suits you to do so; otherwise don't.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 19:41

3 Answers 3


Since the term hasn't been redefined in linguistics in a special way, all you can get here is the ordinary meaning of the word, which as, as reported in the OED, "a group of two letters expressing a simple sound of speech". A reasonable interpretation of "simple" is "one, single". So the two letters "ff"express not two speech sounds, but one. The term is not defined in terms of phonemes or morphological analysis. Nor is it defined in terms of underlying forms or any other abstraction -- it is defined in terms of "speech".

Webster's Third International dictionary provides two definitions: "a group of two successive letters whose phonetic value is a single sound (as ea in bread or ng in sing) or whose value is not the sum of a value borne by each in other occurrences (as ch in chin where the value is \t\ + \sh)" – basically the same as the OED definition, and "a group of two successive letters" – basically, this is wrong, because it would then make "ad" in "admit" (idem "dm" in that word) a "digraph".

Because "digraph" is not a technical linguistic term, all we can offer is standard, well-respected dictionary sources. Theoretically, one could devise a study to determine the definition of the term that best matches the intuitions of the largest set of English speakers, but nobody has done or will do that experiment. Even then, that would be a question about English language word-meaning and usage, not linguistics.

  • But, it seems to me that we can't objectively divide speech into discrete, individual "sounds" without using some concept like phonemes. The articulation is not divided into independent "sounds." The phonetic data is not divided into modular "sounds." We transcribe the phonetics using the single letter [f] for simplicity, but there will be some change in airflow and so on that this notation does not capture. So, what do you mean by "speech sounds" here? It cannot be pure phonetics. Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:29
  • A "sound" is simply a segment. Whether or not the segment is contrastive or non-contrastive is immaterial. But this is beside the point, because I am reporting the definition given in OED (also Webster's), which is in terms of "sounds". You can't impute to either definition any assumptions about phonetics vs. phonology. I don't care if you make a proposal as to how "digraph" should be defined; my point is that since it is not a technically-defined term of linguistics, then a question about word definition has to be answered in terms of ordinary language definition.
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:55
  • "simply a segment" what does that mean? How do we identify the division between segments? Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 22:02
  • That's a reasonable question, but a bit complex for comments and off-topic for this question. Are you asking how we identify segments?
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 23:30
  • I'm asking how we can judge if something is a "single" segment or not. What are the criteria? Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 7:57

"Digraph" can mean different things (Wikipedia conveniently has separate articles for some of the separate meanings.) It would not be called a Digraph (orthography), because it represents two phonemes at the morphological level. These phonemes are the same/equal (das Gleiche) but not the same/identical (dasselbe). It is just two letters next to each other.

Some possible corroborating evidence is that double-f ligatures are proscribed in such a situation in German.

There are other cases where non-equal sounds may be dropped next to each other. For example, the German word jetzt is often pronounced /jɛt͡s/. This does not make "tzt" some kind of trigraph representing /t͡s/.

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    I dunno... "digraph" is not usually a very strictly defined word, because most linguists don't care that much about terminology for writing systems. Orthography is often considered marginal to modern linguistics (at least, that's a view that I've been exposed to a lot; there may also be countervailing tendencies). Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 9:56
  • Altho it's certainly true these terms aren't precisely defined, I agree with this answer. A digraph represents a single phoneme, but the ff in Schaffel always represents two phonemes, even if at times the phonetic realisation is more like that of a single phoneme. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 22:41
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    Additionally, the principle in the first bullet point should also be rejected as it could produce an absurd multiplying of 'digraphs'. Eg English 'homework' is not uncommonly realised phonetically as [hoʊ̃wək] so this would mean 'mew' is a trigraph because it now appears to correspond to the [w] alone. Well, that' would be one way of applying it but there are other possibilities. Anyway, that first bullet point would lead to a number of such problems. Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 21:19

I think ff would be called a digraph because it corresponds to two letters. Wikipedia has an entry for Digraph.

  • I am sorry, but the other disputant does not accept Wikipedia as a reference. It’s my fault; I should have mentioned this from the beginning. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 8:15

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