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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
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Why should these be consistent (as opposed to the rest of English spelling)? –  GEdgar Jun 28 '11 at 23:52
    
Mainly, I wish to know how all the spellings happen to be the same as regards the -ough, if they aren't pronounced the same. –  Daniel Jun 29 '11 at 0:21
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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. –  KitFox Jun 29 '11 at 0:33
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Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/5254/… –  Theta30 Jul 3 '11 at 1:38

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 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 drog-eh-ta but gradually simplified to the current pronunciation while keeping the original spelling.

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