'Tough', 'through', 'though' 'thought': The absurdities of English spelling

The same four letters, “ough”, that’s pronounced six different ways

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Fri 4 Aug 2023, 4:08 PM

Years ago, the popular sitcom I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball, featured a hilarious scene of her correcting her Cuban-American husband Desi Arnaz’s English pronunciation. He reads aloud the word “cough”, and is told the “ough” rhymes with “off”. Then he reads “bough” as “boff”, and is told it should be “bow”. Then he pronounces “through” as “throw” and is told the “ough” is pronounced “oo”. He goes through the same confusions with the words “thought” (where “ough” is pronounced “aw”), “tough”, where it’s pronounced “uff”, and “though”, where it’s supposed to come out as an ‘oh’. And this is the same four letters, “ough”, that’s pronounced six different ways! Arnaz gives up in frustration — and many an unwary learner of the English language might do so too. Even before encountering more complicated discoveries, like the fact that “drought” does not rhyme with “thought”!

Let’s face it, English spelling is ridiculous, as the writer and editor Sally Davies bluntly explains: “Sew and new don’t rhyme. Kernel and colonel do.” So similar spellings involve completely different pronunciations, while words that sound alike can be spelled very differently. Thus, the vowels “ea” often come together in many words, but can be pronounced in three different ways: as ‘ee’ (in teak, please, deal, or beach) or as ‘eh’, as in bread, head, instead, dealt, or wealth, and even as “ay”, if you’re saying aloud the words break, steak, or great. If you find that exasperating, it is: there are no really absolute rules and you just have to know how the words are spelt.

In most languages around the world, words are mainly pronounced as they are written, so when you learn one of these languages, your accent might be off but your pronunciation should be largely right. Languages like French have silent letters and other quirks, but the rules governing them are largely predictable. You certainly can’t say the same about English. The letter “l” is silent in English words like “could” and “should”, but pronounced clearly in “mould”.

Even vowels by themselves are not reliable indicators of pronunciation. The simple letter “a” is not pronounced the same in all words. It sounds completely different in “father” (the “ah” sound) than in “bather” (the “ay” sound), just as dame is not pronounced with the same “a” as dart. The same is true of “e” in “bed” (the short sound) and in “eh” (the longer “ay” sound); of “i” (which in “different” is not the same as in “diverge”); of “o” (“o” from “host” is not pronounced like the “o” in “cost”); and of “u” (“cut” versus “cute” or “but” versus “duty”). You don’t have to be an American sitcom character to realise such differences aren’t absorbed in a day, but require years of reading and hearing the spoken language to correlate the two.

Two of the vowels also reinforce themselves in words where they are repeated, but even when you double up the vowels they don’t sound alike: “oo” in “moon”or “boot” is a long sound whereas “oo” in “book”, “cook” or “foot” is a short one. (It gets even more complicated with “roof”, which some native English speakers pronounce with the long “oo” while others render the same word with a short sound.) The long and the short of it is that such pronunciation inconsistencies recur elsewhere: the “u” in “push” is a short sound while the “u” in “June” is a long one.

Very many of those for whom English is a second language have given up trying to master these intricacies and simply rely on the “spell-checker” embedded in their word-processing software to correct their spellings for them. But these aren’t perfect either, as Karan Thapar wrote hilariously a couple of years ago: “Eye halve a spelling chequer, it came with my pea sea, it plainly marques four my revue Miss steaks eye kin knot sea. Eye strike a key and type a word, and weight four it two say weather eye am wrong oar write, it shows me strait a weigh. As soon as a mist ache is maid, it nose bee fore two long, and eye can put the error rite, its rare lea ever wrong. Eye have run this poem threw it, I am shore your pleased two no, it’s letter perfect awl the weigh — My chequer tolled me sew.”


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