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Why do some words ending with "gue" sound different from other similar words?

Examples: rogue and argue.

  • Rogue -> /'rəʊɡ/
  • Argue -> /ˈɑːɡjuː/

They both sound different. What's the reason?

  • 1
    I would perhaps look into patterns of syllabic inflection and emphasis. – PV22 May 12 at 11:20
  • 51
    Because English. – DJClayworth May 12 at 16:13
  • 22
    To say nothing of segue. – James McLeod May 12 at 21:27
  • I for one would much rather pronounce "Argue" as /ˈɑːɡ/ or Arg! – RBarryYoung May 13 at 12:48
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    File this under the same place as the "ough" in bough, tough, though, thought, and through. – Darrel Hoffman May 13 at 14:48
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Current pronunciation often (but not always) reflects the origins of the word. English has two major influences: Romance Languages and Germanic languages.

From the OED

Argue - Etymology: < Old French argue-r < Latin argūtāre -

French is a Romance language.

Rogue- Etymology: Origin unknown.

However, we have another example:

Tongue: Etymology: Old English and Middle English tunge weak feminine > Old Saxon tunga (Middle Low German, Low German tunge , Middle Dutch tonghe , Dutch tong ) = Old Frisian tunge,

Old Saxon is Germanic.

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  • 9
    This can't be the whole explanation: there are -gue words with silent final -ue, derived from Latin or a Romance language. For example league < Fr ligue < L liga; dialogue < Fr < L dialogus < Gk; vague < L vagus. – Rosie F May 12 at 9:39
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    @RosieF Actually, when you look at how people try to 'correct' spelling and pronunciation without understanding etymology, it's entirely plausible that this could be the sole cause. Consider the fact that that 'octopi' is not actually correct based on etymology (octopus is from Greek, not Latin, so 'ctopusses' or 'octopodes' is the 'correct' pluralization) but is in very widespread usage. – Austin Hemmelgarn May 12 at 16:57
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    I don't see the connection. The OP is about the correct pronunciation of English words with a certain spelling-feature, and has nothing to do with morphology; your "octopi" example is about a form arising from wrong morphology. – Rosie F May 12 at 17:12
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    What about "fatigue" vs. "argue"? The answer is that is how it is in (at least modern) French. But why does French behave that way? Some of it is that the spelling in modern French does reflect the pronunciation, which is not the case in English, and the pronunciation is ultimately just etymological in nature (it is how it is), but I am not sure that that is a satisfying answer. I am not sure that there is a satisfying answer at all. – user173897 May 12 at 21:22
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    @RosieF This can't be the whole explanation: True, and that is why I wrote often (but not always). The "whole explanation" would involve a small volume addressing the etymology of every "gue" and "og" word, e.g. your example "dialogue" is the British English spelling of the American English "dialog", and the "u" did not enter the spellings until around the early 16th century and even then, was not always consistently used until the 17th. {Dia >Gk ~ consisting of + logo = word(s)} > Latin dialogus > Fr > dialoge. – Greybeard May 13 at 8:00
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English pronunciation has a lot of exceptions; in your specific case it is probably due to the origin of the two terms:

Rogue for instance:

  • 1560s, "idle vagrant," perhaps a shortened form of roger (with a hard -g-), thieves' slang for a begging vagabond who pretends to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge, which is perhaps an agent noun in English from Latin rogare "to ask."

While argue has retained part of its original sound:

  • c. 1300, "to make reasoned statements to prove or refute a proposition," from Old French arguer "maintain an opinion or view; harry, reproach, accuse, blame" (12c.), ultimately from Latin arguere "make clear, make known, prove, declare, demonstrate,

(Etymonline)

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  • Don't forget ague! – Davo May 12 at 13:30
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The letters “g”, “u” and “e” all have multiple values in English, as well as in French (from which we get a significant number of modern English spelling patterns). That’s why the ending “-gue” is ambiguous.

In “argue”, “u” is functioning as a vowel. The spelling pattern is the same as in words like “cue”, “cute”, “fuse”: “u” represents a glide followed by a syllabic vowel sound, /ju/.

In “rogue”, “u” is not functioning as a vowel, but as part of the digraph “gu”, which represents the sound /g/ here and in other words such as “guess”, “guest”, “guile”, “guard”. The historical origin of this digraph is a sound change in French that replaced /gw/ (a /g/ sound followed by the glide /w/) with just the sound /g/. Eventually, “gu” came to be used even in the spelling of some English words that weren’t originally pronounced with /gw/, as a way to indicate a “hard g” sound (/g/) rather than the “soft g” sound (like the j sound) before the letters e and i. Words ending in -ge, such as rage and age, tend to be pronounced with the j sound.

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  • 4
    Expanding on the last bit about pronunciation: "rog" would rhyme with "dog". Adding an e to make the o long, "roge", we'd get a soft g. So we need something more to insulate the g from the e; rogue. – CCTO May 12 at 20:27
  • @CCTO: this is the crux of the matter. Perhaps you should post it as an answer. – TonyK May 12 at 21:10
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While the other answers specifically address these two words that you asked about, here I want to address the apparent underlying assumption that there are some fixed rules for pronunciation that work for most English words. This assumption is quite false; it works with 'standard' grammatical forms but fails for a disproportionate number of common words (partly because common words are used so often that those with 'idiosyncratic' pronunciations cannot be easily 'standardized').

As DJClayworth put it: "Because English"! More specifically, because of the history of English.

Even the specific ending of "gue" has other words with totally different pronunciation from "argue" and "rogue", such as "dengue" and "segue". But this phenomenon is ten times worse (informally speaking) for common words. For fun, read this famous poem by Gerard Nolst Trenité in 1920, which incidentally does not have "argue" or "rogue" in it...

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The short answer is: because there was not a better way to write it.

If we would write "roge", the spelling suggests a pronunciation of "ge" like in "Roger" or "George".

The "u" is inserted to indicate that "g" is pronounced like it is in "go", "good", "guarantee" etc.

However, the u also has a role as a consonant (/j/), in words like "uniform" and "argument". Of course, we could write those words as "yooniform" and "argyooment".

And now the problem is that those words came from French or Latin. In French, "u" is not pronounced like "yoo", so there was a reason why they wrote "argument" .

And now, people writing English are rebuked (or not understood) if they alter the existing spelling.

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  • 1
    Decapitated Soul, you made my answer more readable. Thanks for that. I wonder whether "u" should be considered a consonant. in "cup" it is a vowel as far as I know. In "uniform", it is a diphtongue ("y-oo") I think (although some persons may pronounce it as the vowel "oo") – Co Stuifbergen May 13 at 10:50
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    @DecapitatedSoul The "long u" /ju/ (using IPA here) sound is considered a vowel because it acts as a vowel, as evidenced by the /u/ in my transcription and the "oo" in Co Stuifbergen's. The /j/ bit makes it a diphthong, but does not strip it of its vowel status. Complicating matters, when "u" acts as a consonant, it sounds as /w/, like in "queen" /kwin/. This happens much more rarely than the sometimes-vowel "y", and usually only in "qu" words, although "segue" has a u-as-consonant too. – No Name May 13 at 18:21
  • "arjeeooment"??? – CJ Dennis May 14 at 1:12