Thoroughly tough thoughts

More about our wonderful language...

I speak reasonably good French. I learned it at school (well, I scraped an O-level), I have taken various courses in the language over the years, and I lived in that lovely country for about 12 years, until August 2017. I’ve always found the language relatively straightforward, because French is – generally – quite logical: words spelt in a particular way are usually sound similar to one another, so bonne rhymes with donne which rhymes with sonne. And so on.

I was thinking about this the other day and it led me to wonder how anyone who speaks and writes such a “logical” language can possibly cope with English. And while people of a certain age sometimes moan (as I do) about the inability of “the young” to spell properly, it’s actually a marvel that anyone, young or old, can speak and spell English in the first place.

How, for example, do we learn to cope with the manifold forms of the letter group “ough”, which has been part of our language since Anglo-Saxon times? I’ve been fascinated by this since I was a child. That's perhaps unsurprising, since the town where I grew up is Loughborough, which has the grouping twice, each pronounced differently – “uff” for the first and “uhh” for the second.

There are a couple of hundred words in the English language that contain “ough”, and no fewer than nine different ways of pronouncing the combination. So how do you tell which one to use? There seems to be no logic – there is no logic – to the differences.

Start, for example, by putting the letter t in front, to give tough: we say, “tuff”. But put th in front instead – though – and the sound morphs into a word rhyming with throw. Add a t to the end of that word and you get thought: which rhymes with taut (and taught – but don’t go there).

And on it goes: compare (there is no comparison) the pronunciations of tough, trough, though, thought, through and thorough: six words, all beginning with 't', and six different pronunciations. Honestly: how the hell does anyone ever learn to speak English as a foreign language?

Through gritted teeth, presumably.

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