The majority of English speakers are not proficient in the International Phonetic alphabet or any other phonetic transcription system outside their own orthography. However, we often feel the need to write something in a way that is more indicative of its pronunciation than traditional orthography. This is especially the case with vowels, where many speakers turn to respelling methods with digraphs and trigraphs to represent each vowel phoneme.

Some of the standard respelling graphemes are very logical - like ⟨ee⟩ for the FLEECE vowel and ⟨oy⟩ or ⟨oi⟩ for the CHOICE vowel - because those digraphs often represent those phonemes in standard orthography. However, other respelling patterns that have emerged exist in hardly any words in the orthography, and thus seem extremely odd to me. Many of these utilize the letter ⟨h⟩ despite no resemblance of the sounds they represent to the /h/ phoneme (the same can be said for consonant digraphs like ⟨ch⟩, ⟨sh⟩, ⟨ph⟩, ⟨th⟩, though these are a bit more understandable) For example, English speakers use spelling patterns like ⟨uh⟩, ⟨ah⟩ ⟨ih⟩, ⟨eh⟩, ⟨oh⟩, and ⟨ohw⟩ in respelling transcription.

The existence of these transcription choices can be observed in the pronunciation YouTube channel English Hacks - Feel English Like A Native. For a variety of poorly-explained reasons, the creator, Josh, chooses to use his own phonetic transcription system rather than utilize or modify an established system like the IPA. His system includes ⟨uh⟩ for the STRUT and COMMA vowels, ⟨ih⟩ for KIT, ⟨eh⟩ for DRESS and SQUARE, ⟨uuh⟩ for FOOT (an odd choice), and ⟨ah⟩ for TRAP. Personally, I think of ⟨ah⟩ as the LOT/FATHER vowel, but Josh's use of the cot-caught merger (he writes ⟨aw⟩ for both of those vowels) and my lack of it sort of explains that.

It seems probable that interjection words like ah (fear and surprise), oh (realization), uh (hesitation), huh (confusion), and possibly meh (indifference) have something to do with these respelling patterns. However, I still don't know why those interjections are spelled that way, and they don't explain the existence of ⟨ih⟩. In addition, eh (stereotypical Canadian yeah/huh) is a weird one since we usually think of that word as having a FACE vowel but use that letter pattern to denote DRESS vowels.

How and why did these digraphs originate? Why is the letter ⟨h⟩ involved in all of them? Do speakers of other languages use any similar spelling patterns?

  • 4
    Pure speculation: uh, eh and ah are traditionally used to spell the filler words /ə(ː) ~ ʌ(ː)/ (as in “Uh, I think that’s wrong”), /ε(ː)/ (as in Canada), and /ɑ(ː)/ (as in “Ah, I see”). They’re not really in common use elsewhere. On their own, the vowel letters are highly ambiguous, representing both lax and tense/diphthongal vowels; the tense vowels/diphthongs can generally be represented unambiguously by digraphs (⟨yu⟩, ⟨ey⟩, ⟨ee⟩, etc.), but the lax vowels are tougher. The versions with h are practical because they all unambiguously represent the lax option for each vowel. Based → Apr 26 at 12:40
  • @JanusBahsJacquet note that in the UK AmE <uh> is often spelt <er> as in a non-rhotic variety like RP or Standard Southern British English this sequence generally is pretty much just [ə(ː)]
    – Tristan
    Apr 26 at 12:42
  • 3
    → on that, it’s a fairly short step to applying the same logic to ⟨i⟩ as well (potentially representing KIT, FLEECE and PRICE), adding an h to explicitly mark the lax option (KIT) that is otherwise quite difficult to mark unambiguously. The only outlier is then oh, which (unlike uh/eh/ah) represent the diphthongal GOAT vowel in normal writing and kept that value. On its own, o doesn’t generally represent different lax vowels from u, anyway, so this is not too much of a transgression on the logic. Apr 26 at 12:43
  • @Tristan Indeed (that’s how I would normally spell it), and you do also sometimes see phonetic schemes using ⟨er⟩ instead of ⟨uh⟩ for schwa. But ⟨uh⟩ fits the overall system better, and if the principle behind this type of respelling originated in the US before gaining ground in the UK, it makes sense to keep it. Apr 26 at 12:46
  • 1
    I bet it was inspired, or at least influenced, by the use of <h> after vowels in German orthography.
    – Nardog
    Apr 27 at 8:08


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