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How to Pronounce "Ghoti"
Did you ever wonder why we spell some words in English in ways which bear no resemblance to the way they are pronounced? Here are some prime examples.
laugh sigh sight
enough nigh night
rough thigh height
rough thigh height
cough sleigh light
To emphasize the problem, Bernard Shaw once proposed the spelling ghoti for "fish", with the [gh] from "laugh", the [o] from "women" and the [ti] from "nation".
Would you believe after that, that the distribution of the two pronunciations of [gh] in English is amazingly regular? See if you can figure out the rule. The [gh] was originally pronounced like the [ch] in Scottish loch "lake" or German lachen "laugh" (like you're clearing your throat). The preceding [u] represented lip-puckering (rounding) which was pronounced simultaneously with [gh]. When the [gh] disappeared because it was so softly pronounced,lip-puckering changed to lip-biting (check where your teeth are when you pronounce [v] or [f]). So [gh] ended up pronounced [f] because of the disappearance of a softly pronounced consonant and a shift of lip activity.
However, [gh] did not develop into [f] everywhere. To detect the word position in which it did, compare the following examples with those in (1) above. If you still aren't sure of the answer, click here.
bought sought caught daughter
fought ought taught slaughter
In fact, the original sound of [gh] in English was the same as the [ch] sound in Germanic languages from which Englis (German, Dutch, Flemish, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, and Norwegian) historically developed. Take a look at the following words from German, where the sound is usually represented by the letters [ch]. The sound goes back to an even older stage when it was pronounced [k]. To see this, compare the Germanic words in English with related words borrowed from Latin. The stems in the Latin words were originally the same stems in Indo-European as those in the Germanic words.
ENGLISH GERMAN LATIN
eight acht octopus [oktopus]
fight fechten infect [infekt]
right Recht rectify [rektify]
high hoch
By the way, the change of [k] to German [ch] followed the same Grimm's Law that gave us Germanic [f] from Indo-European [p] and [th] from [t].
The branch of linguistics dealing with sounds and sound changes is phonology. If you figured out the rules explaining the examples above, you might be interested in other aspects of how your brain and tongue are wired together—and how they are wired to the heads of ancestors in the Dnepr valley 5,000 years ago. Remember the magic word: LINGUISTICS. It doesn't mean speaking a lot of languages. And it is certainly one of the newest sciences.
Answer
Old English [gh] became [f] after [u] when it was at the end of words. There were exceptions, though: "through" (and related "thorough"), "borough," for example. However, this position is the only one where [gh] became [f] over the history of the language.
laugh sigh sight
enough nigh night
rough thigh height
tough high right
cough sleigh light
When [gh] occurred after [u] but NOT at the end of a word, it simply disappeared and is no longer pronounced.
bought sought caught daughter
fought ought taught slaughter
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