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I am not a native speaker, and I find it very interesting that night is written with gh. Why is it spelled this way?

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  • As opposed to "nite"? Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 0:52
  • 1
    And why "eight," "bight", "blight", "fight," "sight", "flight", "might," "weight," "freight," etc? Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 1:02
  • Between i and t? Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 1:04
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    It's the way it used to be spelled but pronunciation has changed.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 1:39
  • As opposed to "nite"? yeah "rite"! Same question was asked by Ser Davos in Mhysa (S3E10) - Game of Thrones. Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 14:50

1 Answer 1

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When you see a GH spelling in English and it's silent or not pronounced like G, you're dealing with Middle English. That's the language for which English spelling was developed.

Middle English had an /h/ phoneme, and it occurred both

  • pronounced [h] before vowels
    (where /h/ occurs in Modern English: Ha he who huh hey /ha hi hu hə he/)

and

  • pronounced [x] (rather like German CH or Russian Х or Hebrew ח) after vowels.
    It was spelled GH in those cases, because it was pronounced [x], instead of [h].

Part of the change from Middle to Modern English was that the postvocalic [x] allophone of /h/ either disappeared (as in night), or mutated to another fricative, like [f] in enough or trough.

Once these had disappeared (leaving only fossils in the spelling), the prevocalic allophones, having no other H-like sounds to contrast with, mutated into the current bevy of voiceless vocal onsets.

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  • 2
    How was it pronounced? In broad Scots they say something like 'It's a bricht, moonlicht nicht! was it like that?
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 2:37
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    @WS2 At 03.24 you can hear a text being read out in Middle English, and yes, it does rather sound like Scottish. It's quite fascinating stuff. youtube.com/watch?v=GrnXgVTTrCI&list=PL60EDCEF24DB56379
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 23:28
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    @Mari-LouA Very interesting indeed. Thanks for that.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 27, 2014 at 0:27
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    Could I add that in my native East Yorkshire, there is a (sort of) remnant of the now-silent /x/. In this speech, so-called long A is a more-or-less pure vowel, so 'late' is pronounced /leːt/. This is true for all long As except in some words with silent 'gh': 'eight' is pronounced /ɛɪt/, 'weight' is pronounced /wɛɪt/ [so 'weight' and 'wait' don't rhyme]. This diphthong occurs only in this small group of words where /x/ disappeared, Commented May 25, 2016 at 8:28
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    @JohnLawler Thanks for that, and for awakening a 50-year-old memory of a French teacher explaining the 'circonflex'. I guess 'Compensatory Lengthening' applies to the non-rhotic pronunciation of [e.g.] 'cart'? Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 11:01

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