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So You Thought You Could Rhyme

Exploring the Variety in -gh and -ough Pronunciations

Zach Mainzer

With a quick glance, you would think that through, plough, cough, though, rough, all rhyme, and that “thought” would at least sound similar to any one of these words. That, of course, is wildly inaccurate. Despite all of these sounds being produced by the same -ough letter sequence, each of these words makes a different sound. In fact, the -ough suffix has eight distinct pronunciations in American English and a ninth one in British English (if anybody can figure out which one British English has that we don’t, feel free to let me know). Considering that most languages are dictated by some set of rules, the seemingly haphazard guidelines for -ough usage is truly baffling.

As you can imagine, these spelling rules were much less confusing at a time when English was quite different from the language we use today. English, as it exists today, is a conglomeration of a variety of languages, originating from an offshoot of Roman dialect inspired by Greek and Latin, and ultimately being influenced by old Germanic languages in the 500s and 600s, Norman French in the 1000s, and more modern languages as well. In each of these languages, -ough had a bit of a different role. 

In Germanic languages, the -gh suffix indicated the use of a velar fricative, a sound quite similar to the ח in Modern Hebrew (not the Sephardi guttural ׅhet). Other languages used -gh to indicate a velar fricative sound that more closely resembled the k sound in Modern English. As English progressed and became more standardized, velar fricatives were replaced by other sounds called labial fricatives in what became the “velar-labial shift.” Instead of using the throat, these sounds were produced through the lips, resulting in sounds like our old buddy the F. 

However, this shift did not impact all words equally. Clusters of -gh found in the middle of words were slowly dropped from pronunciation as it became too burdensome to pronounce the fricative “f” sound followed by another consonant. Therefore, words like enough and laugh have an f-sounding -gh, while words like thought and drought have a silent -gh. But this leaves one problem: Some words, like through and though have silent -gh’s at the end of the word. And to be honest, this quandary has baffled linguists, many of whom have offered potential solutions to the “though problem.”

In any case, all of the -gh and -ough pronunciations (which each sound remarkably different from each other) originated from their own sets of linguistic rules in a variety of languages, but as English has joined these languages together, we are left with a variety of -ough possibilities for any given word. In the words of the linguist Henry Cecil Wylde, “there was once a good reason for writing gh; there is none now.”

This is just one of the many quirks of English that make it one of the most difficult languages to learn. Recently, I discovered the existence of the Simplified Spelling Society, which advocates for removing the currently excessive amount of unpronounced letters across the English language. They advocate for abolishing -ough in favor of the current vowels or vowel clusters that typically make up the sound of any particular -ough. For instance, “through” would be thru, “drought” would be draut, and rough would be ruf. 

To some extent, these suggestions have crept their way into standard English, though only by common usage and not by official rule change. We use snow plows instead of snow ploughs (though good luck finding Georgia’s 13), and we eat donuts, not doughnuts. So it seems that the advocacy of the Simplified Spelling Society has not been for naught (a word changed from nought relatively recently). And who knows, maybe as English develops in the future, we could finally see a language in which the letters may truly represent the sounds that we have ascribed to them.

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