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The letters -ough- can be pronounced a ridiculous number of different ways in English. Here is a possibly incomplete list:

  • tough, enough
  • cough, trough
  • bough, plough
  • though, dough
  • thought, bought
  • through
  • thorough, borough
  • weirdos like hiccough, hough, lough.

Are there any other letter sequences in English near this crazy? How do non-English speakers cope with trying to learn a language as messy as this?

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For what it's worth, bough, plough, though, dough, thorough, and borough all rhyme when I pronounce them. –  Marthaª Nov 19 '10 at 0:26
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@Martha: cool! How do you pronounce them? To rhyme with "go"? –  thesunneversets Nov 19 '10 at 0:29
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My "though" rhymes with "go", but my "thorough" rhymes with "kookaburra" :D –  thesunneversets Nov 19 '10 at 19:55
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I've got [ʌf], [ɒːf], [aʊ], [oʊ], [ɒːʔ], [uː], and [əʊ]. Fairly standard American, I should think, but even as a teenager I've been called old-fashioned-sounding a number of times on this site. And yes, I pronounce "caught" and "cot" differently. How else would you distinguish "haughty" from "hottie"? –  Jon Purdy Nov 22 '10 at 5:42
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@Mr. Shiny and new: as far as I know, thorough and borough in most (all?) UK dialects rhyme with kookaburra — the last vowel is a schwa — but in some (many?) US dialects they rhyme with tomorrow — the last vowel is [əʊ] as in go (but unstressed and a bit reduced). –  PLL Dec 11 '10 at 0:09
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Answer to (2):

We memorize each exceptional word. In the grand scheme of things, this is actually not a huge number of words. Consider Chinese and Japanese, who have a large number meaning-based characters that provide little to no information about their pronunciation at all. If memorizing the pronunciation of thousands of characters is possible, then memorizing English words with exceptional spelling seems almost trivial.

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I guess English is far from being the hardest language in the world. Nevertheless, whoever came up with the idea of consistent phonetic spelling throughout a language deserves a medal! –  thesunneversets Nov 20 '10 at 19:49
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+1. A large number of Chinese characters are semanto-phonetic: half of the character gives you a clue as to pronunciation; the other half, meaning. So if you're a literate native speaker, you stand a pretty good chance of being able to figure out an unknown character. The problem is a bit more extreme in Japanese, which tends to use a single character for multiple related meanings, which are disambiguated by context given by phonetic characters. Each meaning typically has its own slightly different pronunciation, which may be derived from a Chinese word or a native Japanese one. Yeeeah. –  Jon Purdy Nov 20 '10 at 22:58
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It doesn’t surpass it, but ue seems to at least be a modest little brother to ough. It can represent:

  • \-yoo\: argue, cue, ensue
  • \-oo\: glue, true, sue
  • [silent]: tongue, morgue, vague, the Hague
  • \-way\: segue, suede

(This is just looking at the cases where it really is functioning as a unit, omitting examples like truer and queer, where a phoneme straddles its boundary.)

[Inspired by the comments here.]

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