The word tough is pronounced /tʌf/. The word though has a completely different pronunciation, that is /ðəʊ/.

Is there a reason why the latter would not be pronounced /ðʌf/?

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    It's a tough question, though I'm sure someone can answer it. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 16:01
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    There's also through, cough, bough...
    – Nicole
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 16:14
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    The graphemic sequence -ough has at least ten different pronunciations in current English (some very common, some extremely rare). Their various histories are quite complex, but in general, you just cannot assume that the same letters represent the same sounds in different words in English. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 16:24
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    Consider the town of Loughborough which has two pronunciations for ough in one name :-) Luffburuh.
    – djna
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 17:35
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    @HotLicks: As I said, if you have a PhD (or the same amount of study and research) in history of English, you can confidently state the rules and explain why they exist. That last part is, unfortunately, how you would be able to state the rules, because most of them go like this: "If a word spelled with letters was borrowed from language before/after time of significant linguistic event, then letters should be pronounced [fə'nɛɾɪks], except in the following cases: list of exceptions". Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


There is no reason that a word spelled though shouldn't be pronounced /ðʌf/ in principle. However, with regard to the English word we are actually talking about, the problem is the other way round. Words are primarily a progression of sounds. The spelling is a means of representing that series of sounds.

So, in a way, the question might be phrased: "Why do we represent the word /ðəʊ/ similarly to the way we represent the word /tʌf/?". The answer is very complicated. The short answer to the question is that English doesn't have a good correspondence between the sound and the spelling of words - because of the history of the language, the history of printing, and the fact that certain words change their sounds depending on stress.

I've heard some native English speakers say that they can pronounce any new word they see without having heard it before, but they can't. A simple way to show that this claim isn't true, is to take the Original Poster's letter cluster : -ough

This can have nine different pronunciations in English. Here are some example words and pronunciations:

  • though /əʊ/
  • through /u:/
  • thought /ɔ:/
  • tough /ʌf/
  • thorough/ə/
  • bough /aʊ/
  • trough /ɒf/
  • hiccup/ hiccough /ʌp/
  • lough /ɒx/

What this shows is that we use -ough to represent all kinds of different sounds in English. There's no way for a speaker who hasn't seen a particular -ough word before to know what the pronunciation of the word will be. There is no principled way to justify this in modern English. It's mostly down to historical accident.

I'm afraid that I don't know the historical reasons why the current English word /ðəʊ/ is spelled the similarly to /tʌf/, but I'm sure someone here can help. What I do know is that there's little intuitive rhyme or reason for the spelling of a lot of English words. So, to kind of answer the Original Poster's question more directly, if there was a homograph of the word though, it might well be pronounced /ðʌf/!

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    +1 And don't forget slough which has (at least) three different pronunciations of it's own.
    – Frank
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 10:02

The two words have totally different histories. Without going into the English line of development it is possible to show this by comparison with German.

though/although is related to German doch/jedoch. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=though&searchmode=none

tough is related to zäh, Bavarian zach /tsa:ch/.http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=tough&searchmode=none

  • The German cognates really show nothing of the history of the words in English. Looking at their archaic spellings in the OED, they ended with the same consonant /x/ in Middle English, but seem to have had different vowels. But I don't think there's any way you can deduce the Middle English vowels from the cognate German vowels. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:08
  • They show different vowels and different t-sounds as in Proto-Germanic and in English. For details I indicated etymonline. I didn't deduce anything, I just compared.
    – rogermue
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:15
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    slough: German Schlauch; tough: German zäh; rough: German rauh; enough: German genug. If you can find a pattern here with the vowels and final consonants, you're cleverer than I am. Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:27
  • The purpose was to hint at the different history of the two words. I didn't want to write a book about historical sound change in English.
    – rogermue
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 19:33

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