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Gh is a digraph in English (and in some other languages). In English, you can see it at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the word.

If ⟨gh⟩ is not at the beginning of the word, it is almost always either silent or pronounced as /f/. (silent if in the middle --> light, /f/ if at the end --> tough)

Some exceptions are:

  • lough (and certain other Hiberno-English words) where ⟨gh⟩ is silent. [⟨gh⟩ historically represented [x] (the voiceless velar fricative) and it still does in some words.]

  • Edinburgh - ⟨gh⟩ is occasionally pronounced [ə]

Note: The locals pronounce it like "Edinburrah" and all the other "burghs" (Fraserburgh, Musselburgh etc.) rhyme. But there is an exception to this exception which is Pittsburgh (well, it is in US and not Scotland but shares the same suffix "burgh"). Another good question that comes to mind is "Why doesn't Pittsburgh rhyme with Edinburgh?" and there is a good answer in Quora if you want to check.

When gh occurs at the beginning of a word in English, it is pronounced /ɡ/ as in "ghost" and it does not derive from a former /x/. One might ask where it derives from. So, I checked the etymology of ghost and found this explanation in Etymonline:

The gh- spelling appeared early 15c. in Caxton, influenced by Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest, but was rare in English before mid-16c.

After all the information I provided, the main question is:

  • Is there any English word starting with "gh" and "gh" (at the beginning) is not pronounced as /ɡ/ ?

I couldn't find any exceptions but English has a lot of surprises. There might even be a dialectal exception.

For example, I thought ph is always pronounced as /f/ when it is at the beginning of the word. But there are some exceptions like phthisis, phthisic, phthalate which I saw in this El&U question.


Sources:

- Wikipedia / GH digraph
- Etymonline / ghost
- Phonics from A to Z: A Practical Guide By Wiley Blevins

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  • 1
    I checked out all 60 words in /usr/share/dict/words starting with 'gh' (many of which not defined in online dictionaries), and they all seem to be pronounced with hard /g/. Without that check, I'd guess that 'ghost' is the only native English word starting with that, all others being recent borrowings from Italian or Arabic. – Mitch May 5 '15 at 17:31
  • I also checked a list, and found some exceptions, but they were only fake exceptions, like GHQ. – GEdgar May 5 '15 at 17:34
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    of possible interest if you want to see why this is so phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/johnh/papers/labphon.pdf – user31341 May 5 '15 at 17:37
  • I think that's right. The exceptions would be initial <GH>'s transliterated from Arabic (ghazal) or Sanskrit (ghat) or some other alphabet with a uvular or aspirated consonant there. They will probly be pronounced /ɡ/ by native English speakers, but then practically anything will. There are no other reasons to put a <GH> first in a word. – John Lawler May 5 '15 at 17:46
  • @jlovegren: An explanation can be an answer too. It would be nice if you can put the relevant part of that document as an answer. – 0.. May 5 '15 at 18:12
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The paper I cited in the comment to the OP advances the thesis that the "same" sound can be subject to very different phonological processes depending on whether it appears in word-initial position, or foot-internally (in an unstressed syllable). So if gh in word-initial position and gh in word-internal position had the same historical source, it would be a good insight. But that assumption is false as best I can tell.

Gh in word-initial position was a scribal variant of g, pronounced /g/. It has no historical relation to the word-internal sound spelled gh. Here is a blog post about word-initial gh with a citation to a recommended book by David Crystal. Caxton is blamed.

Gh word-internally was a Middle English scribal variant for letter ȝ ("yogh"). ȝ could be pronounced /x/, /s/, or /j/. When it was pronounced /x/, Middle English scribes wrote gh in its place. In Old English you will see plain h (pronounced /x/) in the corresponding words (night vs. niht). Word-internal /x/ (spelled gh) was lost in some words (dough, through), and came to be pronounced /f/ in others (tough, trough).

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These aren't really "English words", but some people seem to pronounce "Gh" at the start of certain proper nouns as /dʒ/. (This variant pronunciation may be proscribed.) Both of the examples I know of involve the spelling "ghi" in particular, which does not occur at the start of any common English word.

E.g.

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There are some words, taken mostly from Hindi, where the original is pronounced almost as if the "gh" were "hg"; ghazi, ghoul, gharry. Of course, many English-speakers do not hear this, and so pronounce the words as if they started with a simple g. But that is a circular argument; if you accept that English does not have a specific gh-sound but does have the gh spellings, then of course they will be pronounced as the closest equivalent.

And I am not too keen on your first generalisation either: borough does not have a silent GH, or it could be spelled borou, which would not be the same. And what about aghast?

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  • Borough actually does have a silent gh sound. In fact, it has the same pronunciation as burrow, which is /ˈbərō/ – Jesse Williams May 5 '15 at 18:05
  • Thanks Tim. But there isn't a generalisation. I said "almost always" and mentioned the exceptions. Borough has a silent gh though and aghast doesn't start with gh. – 0.. May 5 '15 at 18:06
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    Aren't "ghoul" and "ghazi" from Arabic? And "gharry" looks like it comes from a Hindi word that's just pronounced with an ordinary g, gārī. – herisson May 5 '15 at 18:23
  • So borough has a silent ugh, but not a silent gh? – Peter Shor May 5 '15 at 20:11

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