If there’s one thing you learn early in school, it’s that English spelling does not display a one-to-one correspondence with pronunciation. Any expectation that it should will drive you crazy.
Words spelled with the same letter combination but pronounced with different sounds are due to a combination of different etymologies and evolving sound changes. Many like words started out with the same or similar pronunciations and diverged over time.
In Middle English, where the –ough spelling arose, it was pronounced with a velar fricative or x sound (e.g., [oːx], [oːɣ], [uːx], or [uːɣ]). Currently, the spelling has at least eight pronunciations in North American English and nine in British English; with the most common being:
- /oʊ/ as in though (cf. tow)
- /uː/ as in through (cf. true)
- /ʌf/ as in rough (cf. gruff)
- /ɒf/ as in cough (cf. coffin)
- /ɔː/ as in thought (cf. taut)
- /aʊ/ as in bough (cf. to bow [the gesture])
“Slough” alone has three pronunciations depending on its context and meaning:
- /sluː/ (cf. flu) as in, “slogging through a slough of mud”
- /slʌf/ (cf. off) as in “to slough off”, meaning to shed off
- /slaʊ/ (cf. how) as in the town of Slough in England
There have been attempts to rein in the confusion. Formal and informal spelling reforms are generally more accepted in the United States than in other English-speaking countries. Dialects with traditional pronunciation or old-world spellings keep the debate on ‘correctness’ alive.
- North-East Scottish dialects still pronounce trough as /trɔːx/ (traux)
- In the UK, the word dough can be pronounced /dʌf/ (duff), as in duffpudding
- The word enough can be pronounced /ɪˈnaʊ/ (ow) or /ɪˈnoʊ/ (oh) and the spelling enow is an acceptable dialect or poetic spelling (e.g. “And Wilderness is Paradise Enow.“)
Still, some formal spelling reforms have caught on:
- hiccup instead of hiccough
- hock instead of hough (rare in the U.S.)
Some spellings considered unacceptable in other areas, are standard in the United States:
- naught or not instead of nought
- plow instead of plough
- donut instead of doughnut
- slew instead of slough
Informal spellings are generally considered unacceptable anywhere except in signage or the most casual and textual conversations:
- thru instead of through: as in “drive thru” or “thru traffic”
- tho and altho instead of though and although
- ’nuff instead of enough
So, what is the best way to help our young learners navigate this unpredictable spelling map? Reading. Instilling a love of reading is one of the best ways to focus the attention on the differences and create a memory of written words. Teach students to take pleasure in the differences and develop an appreciation of the rich history of the English language. And remember, it will never stop evolving!
Editor’s Note: David Olsen, a contributor to A Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia, states that slough does not provide a unique pronunciation for -ough, but that hough (pronounced hock) is a Scottish word, meaning the ankle joint of a horse, cow, or foul, or to hamstring, or it is an obsolete British word meaning to clear the throat. Olsen says that in order for the sentence to have 9 different ways of pronouncing -ough, it could be rewritten as: A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed, houghed, and hiccoughed. On the same website, R. E. Davies writes, “Hock [is] well known in Ontario, Canada, where the phrase ‘hock a loogie’ is alive and well.”
Kinney Brothers Publishing Communication Series includes downloadable color and black and white textbooks, teacher’s answer keys, and audio files! Presented in clear, grammatically simple, and direct language, the series is designed to extend students’ skills and interest in communicating in English.