34

It's pretty silly. But then, this question has been left unanswered since preschool. English clearly defines an alphabet 'F'. So why is a 'Ph' used ? or a 'Gh' in words like 'Enough' or 'Tough' ? It is pretty basic and elementary.

  • Useful: howtospell.co.uk/gh-words But if you start picking out examples like this, English will be almost impossible to learn! :) Why 'knife', why 'campaign' and 'champagne', why rendezvous and so on...! – Maulik V Dec 3 '15 at 6:19
  • Yeah, i know..that's why is just stuck to 'F'. Because "Elephant" is like one of the first words we learn right ? So this question has been left unanswered for over 2 decades. – Varun Nair Dec 3 '15 at 6:21
  • 14
    English is the PHP of human languages. – Paul D. Waite Dec 3 '15 at 13:34
  • 24
    @PaulD.Waite All this time I've been saying "Pee Aytch Pee" but now I think I have to start saying "Ffffp". – Todd Wilcox Dec 3 '15 at 13:56
  • 5
    Filipinos vs Philippines! – WW. Dec 4 '15 at 12:59
40

"Ph" is most commonly used in words that come from Greek, like "philosophy". The Greek letter that makes the "F" sound is "phi", written like φ.

As for "Gh", most of the words containing it come from German and old English. It was pronounced then as "ch" is in German today - as a rasp in the back of the throat, like the "ch" in "Loch Ness". Nobody really knows why, but around the same time that vowels shifted and English spelling was regularized, the "gh" sound was removed from English entirely. In some cases, it was just made silent (knight, sigh), and in some others it changed into a lot of different sounds. Now it's just one of the exceptions learners - both foreign and native - have to live with.

[source]

  • 4
    English is super weird. Well, so are all the languages. Thanks for the information. Much appreciated. – Varun Nair Dec 3 '15 at 6:25
  • 4
    Btw, this still leaves open the question "why isn't the Greek letter that makes the "F" sound "fi", written like φ?" :-) My guess is that the Romans did it, but I don't know why. – Steve Jessop Dec 3 '15 at 12:52
  • 15
    @SteveJessop Because in ancient Greek the letter phi ‹Φ› was pronounced as an aspirate /pʰ/; it contrasted with the pi ‹Π› = /p/ (and with the digamma ‹Ϝ› = /w/, which most Greek dialects had lost). The Romans (who had in the meantime borrowed the digamma for Latin /f/) marked the distinction by transliterating ‹Φ› as ‹ph›. The Modern Greek pronunciation /f/ is a later development. – StoneyB Dec 3 '15 at 13:09
  • The sound of "gh" in many areas remains almost identical to the Esperanto character h-with a circumflex, or the Scottish aspirated "ch" sound. "Lough" in Northern Ireland, "trough" in Scotland, etc. – Euan M Dec 4 '15 at 1:07
  • Aspirated P or voiceless bilabial fricative (/ɸ/, like the "F" in Fuji)? It's entirely likely that what we're seeing is the remnant of a transitional form between the ancient ancient Greek /pʰ/ and the modern /f/, and since the voiceless bilabial fricative doesn't exist in Latin (or French or English, old or modern) it would likely be heard and rendered as an F. All languages (except recent creoles) have long and sloppy histories; it's not just an English thing. – Stan Rogers Dec 4 '15 at 7:56
6

This has to do with traditional spelling that could mirror, or attempt to mirror, the spelling used by the language the word was borrowed from ("ph" is, in the vast majority of cases, indicates Greek origin coupled with Latin abuse and, sometimes, the Norman French delivery service);

[let's take a breath]

or, should the word be Anglo-Saxon to begin with, the original pronunciation plays a huge role. -gh- stands for the hard "h" used in some Germanic languages (for instance, it is the last sound in the name Heinrich). The hard "h" went to where the woodbine twines centuries ago, but the spelling persists, and we're reluctant to change it because it's dear to us.

0

The explanations above are correct; however, I would like to add that some of the spellings such as the "gh" in words like "night" occur because of obsolete letters in English now. If I recall, the letter yogh was used in this situation and others with "gh", but that letter is now obsolete. It did look like the letter "g" today, so when the printing press came out, they replaced it with "g".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.