What Is ‘gh’ Doing in So Many English Words?

iStock
iStock

It’s a blight, a thoroughly tough plight, enough to make you want to fight … or laugh. There are so many ways to pronounce, or not pronounce, the English "gh," almost none of which have anything to do with the usual "g" or "h" sound. Why is it there to begin with? 

Once upon a time, the "gh" did stand for a specific sound, one we don’t have in English today, except in interjections of disgust like blech. That back-of-the-throat fricative (written as /x/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) is found in German, and if you look for the German counterpart of English "gh" words, you will often find the sound there: light ... licht, night ... nacht, eight ... acht, high ... hoch, neighbor ... nachbar, though ... doch.

So when you see a "gh," it usually means that it was pronounced with the blech sound in Old English, when our writing system was first developed. Early scribes had to adapt the Roman alphabet to English, and since Latin didn’t have the /x/ sound, they used "h" or a non-Roman character called a yogh (ȝ). Eventually, during the Middle English period, they settled on "gh."

By that time the pronunciation was already changing. The sound turned into /f/ or was dropped entirely. The Great Vowel Shift was underway and many parts of the language were in flux, but by the time the shift was complete, the printing press had stabilized the writing system, and the "gh," pointing back to an earlier English, was here to stay.

Not all examples of English "gh" can be traced back to the /x/ sound. The word-initial "gh" of ghost and ghoul came from the habits of Flemish typesetters. Words borrowed from Italian like spaghetti and ghetto just stuck with Italian spelling conventions.

And there are some words that show how "gh" took on a life of its own in English, words that came into the language long after Old English and never had a /x/ sound in them. Delight and sprightly were modified under the influence of light and right. Sleigh was made to look like weigh, perhaps to avoid looking like slay. Haughty was modeled on words like taught and aught, because, well, doesn’t that look more haughty than hawty? Like it or not, "aught" now stands for a specific pronunciation, with a rounded vowel, that really can't be spelled any other way (at least in dialects without the caught-cot merger). Is taught the same as tot or tawt? I think naught.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?

iStock/matejmo
iStock/matejmo

The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER