“gh” not as in ugh

Amused at the relationship between sound and spelling in Irish of “leobhar” (book), I realise that this is a chauvinist reaction. We can hardly hold our heads high with  “night”, “blight, “tight”, tough” etc. And even stranger I’ve never really thought about the weirdness of “gh” until now but accepted it as just inherently quirkily English. The other day I got hold of David Crystal’s “The Singular Story of English Spelling” (2013). who has much of interest to say.

He argues that the arrival of the Normans (and Norman French scribes) after 1066 is at the root of this particular “problem”. These scribes had to deal with the Germanic origins and sound systems of Anglo-Saxon/Early English, a number of letters in the alphabet unfamiliar to the French (thorn, eth, ash and wynn) and which the Norman scribes preferred to dispose of and the Anglo-Saxon tendency to use the same letter for different sounds, which as a rule doesn’t seem to have appealed to the scribes.

Looking at my Concise Anglo-Saxon dictionary (J.R. Clark Hall (1894), I find “niht” (night), “siht” (sight), miht (might), riht (right) and more in the same vein. The Anglo-Saxons used the letter “h” for two sounds, partly the “h” we are familiar with at the beginning of words in, for example “ham” (village) and “hand” (hand) but also for what linguists refer to as the voiceless velar fricative, “x” in phonetic script. This is the sound we hear when the Scots pronounce “loch”, which came down through German and was used by the Anglo-Saxons. According to Crystal, the Norman scribes had problems in finding a letter to represent this unfamiliar sound but seemed reluctant to continue the Anglo-Saxon dual use of h. At this time, much was decentralised and there were many variants, weird and wonderful ephemerals but some long-lasting); the “gh” spelling dominated in the long run.

According to Crystal, we shouldn’t complain about this but be thankful that the “gh” spelling didn’t spread even more so that we are at least spared dogs giving vent to their feelings with “bowgh wawgh”.

Some support is provided for Crystal’s ideas in Mossé’s Handbook of Middle English (1952) where night is given as “nyght, nyɜt, nyht”, all the variants plus the letter yogh, ɜ, which was used in ME (which did not either find favour with the majority of the Norman clerks). More information about the dating of different usages would be interesting.

If you want a language that’s easy to spell, the trick is to choose invaders whose language has a similar sound system. The solutions arrived at by our Norman visitors are still with us today, frozen fast by Caxton and the rise of the printed word where “nite” is only allowed to prowl around in the bush of slang.

None of this seems much help in explaining the sound system of Irish. I think that this has to be a “fun project” included in my plan for 2022 (together with mastering the phonetic alphabet). The only trouble with my annual plans is that they are distressingly green (a very high proportion of my annual aims get recycled year after year…..). But at least I fail to meet my targets with a dash of panache and it keeps me out of bingo halls and such like dissolute haunts.

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