Problems of English Spelling: taking advantage of "ugh"
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Problems of English Spelling: taking advantage of "ugh"

English words spelled with "ugh" at the end, like "trough," reflect a sound that has died out of English and tell us a lot about the old accents of the language.

Many have been wondering why English has words with clumps of consonants written at the end, such as the "ugh" in "tough," when we could simply write "toff" or any other sensible representation. Now we shall discuss why, and we shall learn the nature of some handy cognates of other Germanic languages while we're at it. Students of German in particular can benefit a lot from this.

English orthography uses -gh simply to mark the sound /x/, which has now died out of the language. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol /x/ marks the voiceless velar fricative. The velum is the door between the back of your throat and your nose. You may still be confused, but you probably know how to pronounce the German exclamation "ach!" right? That sound at the end is the velar fricative. The spelling is shared in Dutch, such as with the name we all can pronounce correctly now, Van Gogh. It's not /van gou/ but /van gox/.

The sound probably died out of Middle English (think Geoffrey Chaucer). There is also the issue of u in ugh reportedly having marked lip rounding. Try it; rounding your lips doesn't interfere with articulating /x/ in your throat. If the language was still using lip rounding when "gh" went away, then it is not a stretch of the imagination to see why the rounded lips became softened (lenition) to a labiodental (biting your lip) sound, which we of course mark with /f/. Hence "rough" or even the well-spelled word "draft." Knowing this gives us insight into many cognates of modern German.

For instance, Laugh, when pronounced with the /x/ as the orthography intends, sounds like /lax/, which is exactly how you say it in German: lachen. in German we mark velar fricatives with {ch}, to make a long story short.

The same goes for the following:

Dough = Teig (here the final consonant has been done away with entirely)

Trough = Trog (the /g/ in this and in "teig," marking a palatal fricative related to /x/, are both softened in German to /k/)

Enough = genug (here the /g/ at the front has been lost through lenition, as one can see in action by reading Chaucer)

Knight = Knecht

Night = Nacht (consider that, losing /x/, English /nait/ "night" has become like Scandinavian /nat/ "natt")

Nought = Nichts

Through = durch (same phenomenon as "dough")

The student may be skeptical of these associations because of the different nouns between the cognates, but keep in mind the many variations producing such associations as EN/DE bone = bein, stone  = stein, and so forth, which is a whole other article to itself.

Conversely, there are plenty of words in English in which the "ugh" issue has been resolved to reflect the contemporary pronunciation. This irregularity is why we find English orthography so annoying! Consider the following:

Draught is now draft, but enough is not enoff.

See also:

https://knoji.com/problems-of-english-spelling-french-ou-demystified/

https://knoji.com/recognizing-metathesis/

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Comments (1)

Very interesting! It makes more sense the more examples you find, and if you consider archaic words like naught there are lots more examples.

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