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There are "cough", "tough", "bough", "through", and "though" (and "hiccough", if you're not from the U.S.); each of which has a different pronunciation for the ending "-ough". Why is this?

Edit for clarification: I'm trying to figure out why "cough" is spelled with an "-ough", if it's pronounced with an "-off". And then "tough", pronounced "tuff". Why is that not spelled "tuff"? "Bough", "through", and "though" should be spelled "bow", "thrue" (or "thru"), and "thoe". Where did "-ough" come from? And then "hiccough". Since that derives from "cough", it should be pronounced "hickoff", but it isn't.

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There are actually (at least) six: Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through... – MT_Head Jun 28 '11 at 23:47
Why should these be consistent (as opposed to the rest of English spelling)? – GEdgar Jun 28 '11 at 23:52
According to Wikipedia, there are at least six pronunciations in North American English and ten in British English. This same article says that almost every combination originally had the same pronunciation, but then the words evolved. Bet one of our linguists will have a good story about this one. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 29 '11 at 0:33
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/5254/… – Theta30 Jul 3 '11 at 1:38
@mikhailcazi: I believe 'hiccough' was originally a hypercorrection for 'hiccup', but if enough people use, spell, or pronounce a word wrongly, the use, spelling or pronunciation changes. – TimLymington Aug 15 '13 at 17:55
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think it's because old and middle English had a lot of cases and articles and so different word endings. As the language simplified a lot of these were lost leaving the words with a single simplified spelling but kept the original pronunciation.

Others were victims of the great vowel shift. So in Chaucer drought is pronounced something like drock-eh-ta but gradually simplified to the current pronunciation while keeping the original spelling.

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No, in Middle English gh was the essentially the consonant in Scottish loch, German Bach, Yiddish chutzpah. So it was pronounced drokhte. "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour;" – Peter Shor May 24 '15 at 0:04

A comparison between English and German can at least give an idea why in English we have an almost uniform spelling but different pronunciations.

lachen - to laugh

keuchen - to cough

durch - through

zäh, Bavarian zach - tough

doch - though/although

English spelling shows the origin of words with a g-sound. But the different vowels before the g-sound led to different pronunciations.

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protected by tchrist Nov 12 '15 at 13:08

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