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Why is it spelled...?

What is the <gh> doing in words like fright, weight, and high?

Those <gh>'s are all that is left of two sounds that were common in Old English but have disappeared from our language. They were velar and palatal fricatives--that is, fricative sounds pronounced far back in the mouth, much 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 fricatives changed and eventually disappeared. As they did so, 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 follow a long <i> or another long vowel or diphthong spelled <ai>, <au>, <ei>, or <ou>:

bight, bright, dight, fight, flight, fright, high, hight, knight, light, might, nigh, night, plight, right, sigh, sight, slight, thigh, tight, wight, wright;

straight;

eight, freight, neighbor, sleigh, weigh, weight;

height;

dough, though, borough, thorough,

slough "bog", through;

bough, doughty, plough.

In a few cases the <gh> follows short [o] or ["dotted spelled <au> or <ou>:

aught, caught, daughter, distraught, fraught, haughty, naught, naughty, slaughter, taught;

bought, brought, fought, nought, ought, sought, thought, wrought.

And in a few cases <gh> spells [f] after <au> spelling [a] or <ou> spelling [u]:

draught, laugh, laughter;

clough, enough, rough, slough "discard", sough, tough.

A few words have been respelled with <gh> via analogy with the <gh> that descends from the Old English fricatives: blight, chough, delight, distraught, furlough, haughty, inveigh, sleigh, spright, straight.

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 of earlier gost by the first English printer William Caxton, and aghast and ghastly are probably respellings via analogy with ghost. The remainder are foreign adoptionsafghan, 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: foghorn, leghorn, pigheaded, etc. (AES, 11.2.2, 15.3.1.2, 15.2.3, 28.2.2.3, and passim)

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