Part 2. I need to teach my kids to spell the /gh/ and /ph/ sounds correctly. Could you help? Thanks, Sabrina
(Bite 2) Beyond the spelling of [f], things can get pretty complicated, especially with <gh>. What follows is probably more than you need, or want, to know, but for good or ill and to the best of my knowledge, here is the rest of the story:
Most of those <gh>'s are all that is left of two sounds that were common in Old English but have pretty much disappeared from our language. They were called velar and palatal fricatives – that is, fricative sounds pronounced far back in the mouth, like the sounds in the Scottish pronunciation of loch and the German pronunciation of Bach. In Old English they were most often spelled <g> or <h>; in Middle English they were usually spelled <gh>. In some pronunciations of a few quite rare words <gh> still spells a velar fricative: curraugh, haugh, kiaugh, lough, quaigh, yogh.
But over time most of these Old English fricative sounds changed and eventually disappeared. As they disappeared, they affected the vowels preceding them, lengthening some, turning others into diphthongs. As a result today the <gh>'s that descend from Old English usually are silent and follow a long vowel:
Often it’s a long <i> – as in bight, bright, dight, fight, flight, fright, high, hight, knight, light, might, nigh, night, plight, right, sigh, sight, slight, thigh, tight, wight, wright; or height.
In some words silent <gh> follows long <a> spelled <ai> or <ei> – as in straight, eight, freight, neighbor, sleigh, weigh, weight.
In some words it follows long <o> or <u> or the diphthong [ou] spelled with a digraph ending in <u>: dough, though, borough, thorough; slough "bog", through; bough, doughty, plough.
In a few cases the <gh> follows short <o> or a sound similar to short <o> spelled <au> or <ou>: aught, caught, daughter, distraught, fraught, haughty, naught, naughty, slaughter, taught ,bought, brought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought, wrought. – again after a vowel digraph ending in <u>.
And in a few cases <gh> spells the fricative [f] after <au> spelling [a] or <ou> spelling [u]: draught, laugh, laughter; clough, enough, rough, slough "discard", sough, tough. Notice again the preceding vowel digraph ending in <u>.
Other than the native burgh, none of the <gh> spellings of [g] descend from the Old English fricatives. Ghost is probably a Flemish-influenced respelling by the first English printer William Caxton of earlier Middle English gost , and aghast and ghastly are probably respellings via analogy with ghost. The remainder are foreign adoptions — afghan, agha, barghest, carragheen, dinghy, ghat, ghetto, ghoul, ogham, prioghi, sorghum, spaghetti, yoghurt, etc.
And finally, in a few words <gh> is the product of the concatenation of two bases, as in bighead big+head: bighorn, bughouse, doghouse, foghorn, froghopper, leghorn, pigheaded, staghound, etc. And more remotely: egghead; bunghole, dunghill, longhair, longhand, longhead, longhorn, ringhals, springhalt, springhare, springhead, springhouse, stringhalt, stronghold.
Mercifully, the digraph <ph> is much simpler in its distribution: Nearly always it spells [f]. Here are words from the CommonWords database on this website with [f] spelled <ph>: acrophobia, alpha, amphibian, anthropomorphism, aphorism, apocryphal, apostrophe, atmosphere, autobiography, bibliography, elephant, emphasis, emphasize, geography, graph, hemisphere, nephew, nymph, orphan, paragraph, phase, phenomenon, Philadelphia, Philippines, philosopher, philosophy, phoebe, phone, photograph, phrase, physical, physician, physics, prophecy, prophet, Ralph, sphere, sulphur, telegraph, telephone, triumph . This is compared with the just eight in which [f] is spelled <gh>.
The only complications are (i) in a few words <ph> spells [p], as in shepherd and in some pronunciations of diphtheria, diphthong and naphtha, (ii) in a few very rare and technical words one can either say that the <ph> is silent or that the cluster <phth> spells [th]: as in apophthegm and several words with the technical base phthal-, such as phthalic and phthalein, and (iii) in a few compound and complex words <ph> spells [p-h] due to concatenation: haphazard hap+hazard, loophole, saphead, scrapheap, slaphappy, straphanger, and the complexes upheaval, uphold, both with the prefix up-, and uphold’s derivative upholster.