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Tough thoughts to plough through: the ‘ough’ phenomenon

Last week, we took a look at how seemingly garbled sequences of letters can, when compared to existing examples of their pronunciations in other words, act as feasible spellings of  everyday items.

Delving further into the idiosyncrasies of English spelling, today we’re going to look at what is probably the most erratic of all its letter clusters.

The sequence ‘ough’ is pronounced in at least eight different ways in UK English. Say these words out loud and see for yourself:

• Tough
• Thought
• Plough
• Through
• Though
• Trough
• Thorough
• Hiccough (an alternative spelling of ‘hiccup’)

You could even argue that there are another two – the archaic words ‘hough’ (a variant spelling of ‘hock’) and ‘lough’ (an alternative form of ‘loch’, which is properly pronounced with a velar fricative ending not dissimilar to the way somebody with a strong Scouse accent might say ‘lock’).

This isn’t a problem as long as the words are familiar to you, but pronouncing a place or personal name you’ve never seen before can be a matter of pure guesswork. Not far from where I live, you can find the villages of Bromborough, Burscough and Thornton Hough. If you’re not from North West England, would it surprise you to learn that the ‘ough’ in each is pronounced differently?

This leads us to ask why? Who in their right mind decided it was logical to assign so many pronunciations to one group of letters.

The ‘ough’ formation is a relic from Middle English and was, in all probability, pronounced like none of the above. The actual sound was probably more like a long German ‘o’ sound followed by the ‘Scouse K’. It’s worth remembering though that Britain is a country very much defined by its accents and dialects and, since ‘ough’ was probably pronounced differently in various parts of the country, no one pronunciation stuck and we ended up with a compromise of inconsistency in how we’re supposed to say “ough” within certain words.

Even today, we can’t really agree on pronunciations between one region and the next – let alone between oversees English-speaking countries. There are far fewer ‘ough’ pronunciations in U.S. English, for example, where ‘thorough’ would rhyme with ‘burrow’, while ‘hough’ and ‘lough’ would get even blanker looks than they do here.

On that note, it’s time for me to pack up, sign off and go away now, or perhaps that should be “time fough me tough pack ough, sign ough and gough oughway nough”?

I’ll get my cought.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] of spellings and how they’re pronounced. In previous features, we’ve talked about the -ough phenomenon and the concept of ‘ghoti’ being a perfectly plausible spelling of the word […]

    Pingback by Casting the spell: is it time for a reform? | Pressroom — December 19, 2013 @ 11:59 am

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