Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Digraph

I think there is no pair of letters more confusing than g and h, though c and h are a close second. But why do we have this pair that can be pronounced “f” as in laugh, or isn’t pronounced at all like in bough or through. And if it’s at the beginning of the word like in ghoul, it’s just a plain g sound (apparently the h is there just because). Seriously, it’s like those two letters combine to cast a spell on pronunciation.

See, back in the old days, gh used to be what’s called a “voiceless velar fricative”. Or in normal terms, it’s a sound you make without the vocal cords (voiceless) with the back of your tongue on the roof of your mouth (velar) using the friction of a forced breath (fricative). The best way to think about it is pronouncing the Scottish word loch. Feel that hardness on the ch? That’s a voiceless velar fricative. However, over the years we softened it and moved from saying it in the back of our mouths to our teeth, making it into an f sound like in rough, laugh, or tough.

The silent pronunciation, where the letters just seem to be there to hang out, has little reasons if you look into etymologies. Though, for example, came from a word that was just “tho”. Similarly if you look at thoughtyou can see that in Old English it was spelled (basically) as “thoht”, with an h to give it breath. Same with fought, where you find that in Old English it was fohten. And if you remember my scare-themed etymology post, the word frightcomes from fryhto, a misspelling of fyrhtu.

That doesn’t explain much, does it? Unfortunately, this is as close to a reason as we get with the whole gh thing. The thing those words have in common is that in Old English, they were pronounced with that guttural, hard H sound. Modern English evolved after the printing press for the first time made grammar and style an issue. In order to get that hard H across, they paired it with G. We may not say it anymore but English is too old to change now. We’d just get confused.

PS. Since tomorrow is the end of the world, I suppose this is my last post ;). We had a good run. If only the Mayans thought to make their calendar longer! Or, you know, roll back to zero. What? That’s actually how it works? I have to think up a post for Saturday? Hm. I wonder why THAT wasn’t posted all over the news.

Tony Jebson’s page on The Origins of Old English


  1. LOL...well, in case we never get to blog again, it's been great reading you :)

    Happy holidays!

  2. That was interesting. I didn't know that about gh. Funny how the language evolves.

  3. My parents came from the Netherlands, and they always found words like that in English, with silent letters or alternate pronounciations, to be perplexing at the very least.


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