4

In English, we have many words ending in or containing “gh”, but in some cases, the two letters are silent, while in others, it is pronounced as “f” . We have the words tough, rough, and draught, which pronounce "gh" as an "f" sound, while the words height, weight, through, drought, and many others do not pronounce the sound at all.

Are there any rules governing the pronunciations of these words? Or is the reason for this based in the origins of the words?

Edit: My question focuses specifically on the “gh” combination, not the pronunciation of “ough”. In my examples I gave words such as the words height and weight which contain “eigh”, not just words with “ough”.

  • 1
    Yes, origins are a good guide for this one. – Lawrence Jul 6 at 15:02
  • 4
    I'd be surprised if there is a rule, as there are relatively recent local pronunciations in England where most "gh" combinations are said as "ff" (e.g. 'siff' for 'sigh'). There's also the places Keighley (keethley) and Lough Neagh (loch nay) to contend with. – Phil M Jones Jul 6 at 15:02
  • 1
    @Phil: in what region is sigh pronounced as siff? – herisson Jul 6 at 17:16
  • @PhilMJones why do you think "siff" for "sigh" is recent? – phoog Jul 6 at 19:01
  • 1
    'f' isn't the only way gh is pronounced. Not that you can consider it or any combination of letters to necessarily be the thing that "has" some sound that is part of the sound of a word or phrase. – philipxy Jul 7 at 3:19
14

The question as posed has no answer, because it starts from an incorrect assumption.
Modern English has no "gh" sound. Middle English had one, but it was lost.

What that means is that the sounds changed, but the spelling didn't, since the spelling got fixed before the Early Modern English period (roughly, 1600-1800; after 1800 is Modern English). When a big sound change is happening, different things happen in different dialects, and then they all merge together, with different words coming from different dialects that made different changes.

While the [x] allophone of the ME /h/ phoneme (which was spelled "gh" in ME) was being lost, people started hearing [x] as a different voiceless fricative (like /f/ or /θ/ -- there are dialects of English still where trough is pronounced like troth instead of troff), or else they just stopped hearing it at all, so it was gone in the next generation's speech. But the spelling remained, to encourage people to question it.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Why the downvote? – user888379 Jul 6 at 15:44
  • 8
    Feel free to make on up yourself, then. What are the rules for pronouncing the gh sound? – John Lawler Jul 7 at 0:02
  • 5
    @JohnLawler We're just ghoting for some sort of guideline! – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jul 7 at 1:56
  • 3
    @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- You'll be waiting a long time. Look at the name of the English town Loughborough (which is pronounced "Luffburrow"). If you can work out a rule which will tell you how to pronounce that you're doing better than I can. – BoldBen Jul 7 at 3:59
  • 4
    "borough" isn't read as "burrow", it's read as "bruh", only one syllable and with a reduced vowel. This is pretty common across British toponyms (and one reason why Americans stand out a lot when talking about the capital of Scotland) – Tristan Jul 7 at 9:37

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.