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An "h" may be used to prevent the "g" from being soft, as in spaghetti, but there is no need for an "h" in the mentioned proper names.

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The "h" in "Lamborghini" has exactly the same function as the "h" in "spaghetti". –  user18036 Nov 4 '12 at 16:47
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See also ghost, burgh, gingham, sorghum. –  tchrist Nov 4 '12 at 17:04
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It's worth noting that both "spaghetti" & "Lamborghini" are Italian words that have been adopted in English without changing the spelling. –  amacy Nov 4 '12 at 17:19
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

In Lamborghini, there is actually a need for the h because it would otherwise be pronounced with a soft g. As for the other two, I think that gh represents a sound that doesn't exist in English (similar to German or French r sound). So it's sort of a transliteration of the native name into English. Just like in the name Khrushchev, for example, where kh represents the Russian х (sounds like the German ch).

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<H> is a letter that's used in English largely to modify other letters, like <TH>, used for both /ð/ and /θ/, <SH> for /ʃ/, and <CH> for /tʃ/. This is for native English words that may have been borrowed centuries ago, but now are felt to be English.

In proper names from other languages, like Afghanistan, Baghdad, and Lamborghini, we are not dealing with English spelling, however. Either there are different spelling conventions involved, like the <GHI> in Lamborghini, which represents /gi/ instead of /dʒi/ in Italian spelling, or there are different writing systems involved that aren't necessarily even alphabets.

Baghdad, for instance, is an Arabic word, spelled in the Arabic abjad, and contains the Arabic letter for the uvular fricative consonant [ʁ], which does not occur in English, but is often transliterated into English as <GH> -- but it's often transliterated in other ways, too; remember the fuss recently over whether the dictator's name was sposta be spelled Kaddaffi, Ghadaffi, Qadafi, Khadhafi, or what?

Similar remarks apply to the <GH> in Afghanistan; though I'm not sure which language it originally represents, it is written using Arabic letters by a Muslim population, and there's that [ʁ] again.

Basically, there is no consistent relation between the spelling of English words and their pronunciation; this is especially true for proper nouns, and most especially true for proper nouns borrowed from foreign languages. They all have to be learned separately.

Sorry, but that's the way it is.

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I think things are changing these days, what with so many of us doing our writing in a computer context. If I don't know how to spell Afganistan it doesn't really matter - Google auto-completes it after I've "guessed" the first three letters anyway. And it underlines misspelt *Afganistan * as I write it here, so the "learning" is definitely easier for me now than it used to be. –  FumbleFingers Nov 4 '12 at 17:33
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Providing that Google uses the romanization standard you prefer. As I used to say a lot back when I was writing software and documentation, the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from. –  John Lawler Nov 4 '12 at 17:38
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You being a linguist and all, quite likely you "celebrate" the diversity of language more than me. I don't really care much if there are no native Welsh speakers eventually, for example, and I'd rather write tete-a-tete without accents. Mind you, if some other country already uses the "Roman alphabet", I think we should just accept the spelling the natives use. I know we pronounce Paris different to the French, but it always seems a bit of a cheek that they even write London as Londres. A bit like people asking if your name is "Steve spelt with a 'v', or with a 'ph'?" –  FumbleFingers Nov 4 '12 at 18:06
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"Afghan" is from the Persian, where the digraph < gh > represents the letter < ﻍ >, also transliterated < ġ >. It is pronounced [ɣ] in Dari Persian, the local tongue. –  Mark Beadles Nov 4 '12 at 18:12
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I suspected it might be Dari, but I didn't know. Afghan languages are mostly Persian-related. –  John Lawler Nov 4 '12 at 18:17
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