Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Ploughing Through Draughts

Or is it “Plowing Thru Drafts?” Donald Shark was curious about the spelling of a Good Word we ran last year. Here is what he wrote:

“In my submission of the word fraught [for consideration as a Good Word] I neglected to ask the burning question, “Why doesn’t fraught rhyme with draught?”

I’m tempted to leave it at: “Because they are in the English language.” In defense of such a response I refer you to “The Chaos”.

The general rule you hear in grammar classes is that GH is not pronounced at the end of words or before T. That works on many words like these:

high height
nigh night
thigh fought
though thought
plough fraught

But this rule works much better on words that end on T than on words that end on the bare digraph GH:

laugh draught
cough ?
trough ?
rough ?
enough ?

The digraph GH in English was originally a sound like the CH in Scots English and German, like a K but without completely closing the throat. Germanic languages like English inherited it from the Proto-Indo-European [k] sound. It generally became H in Middle English and dropped out at the beginning of words, except, in some dialects which retained it. Elsewhere in the word it either disappeared or converted to [f] for unknown reasons.

In many dialects it dropped out everywhere, which is why we hear H-less words in Cockney English: “‘ow ’bout ‘elpin ‘im ‘op over dat ‘ole.” the H’s equivocation has led to the “a historical” versus “an historical” squabble, too.  Historical may be pronounced with or without the initial [h], depending on your dialect, resulting in the confusion over the choice of an or a as an article.

When an aspect of a language is undergoing change, particularly if it is disappearing, speakers lose control of the rule(s) governing it and what might be called “semi-rules” arise, rule like the one we see in the tables above, rules that “sorta” work. Speakers in the US have little patience with them, which is why they lead the way in changing spelling to fit the sound: draft, plow, and even (ugh!) thru.

Unfortunately, writing systems slow down the process of language change. We store visions of printed words in a separate chamber of our brain. These visions of spelling are as real as the words themselves (always spoken beings). Our British cousins are much more tolerant of these traditional spellings than are the pioneers who parted company with them two centuries ago.

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