Daughter and laughter don’t rhyme: why English spelling is so weird

Title page from Samuel Johnson’s ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ published in 1755.

by Brent Eades

English is one of history’s most successful tongues. It’s spoken as a first or second language by more people globally than any other — about 1.5 billion — and is the de facto language of science; about 80% of all scientific papers are published in English. Sixty percent of the ten million most used websites are in English.

It’s also a rich and flexible language with a large vocabulary and copious synonyms — a thin person can also be slight or slender or lithe or svelte or lean or skinny.

But English also has notoriously hard and inconsistent spelling. Why are daughter and laughter spelled almost the same but pronounced so differently? Why can ‘ough’ be said like through or though or rough or cough or drought? Why don’t sew and new rhyme?

Once these words likely did, in fact, rhyme, depending on when and where you were speaking English. But that was long ago.

First, the Anglo-Saxons

The ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were the Germanic tribes that began occupying England in the fifth century: the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. They brought with them the language that became called Englisċ — English — which means ‘pertaining to the Angles’.

That early form of English is nearly incomprehensible to a modern speaker. Here are the first two lines of the Lord’s prayer circa AD 995:

Fæder sure ðu ðe eart on heofenum
si ðin nama gehalgod

By the time of the 1611 King James bible that had become:

Our father which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name 

If you look closely you can see the connections over six centuries.  Fæder = father, heofenum = heaven, nama = name.

Enter the printing press

By the time Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to the western world in 1450, English had evolved into a much different language. Its grammar had changed greatly and it had absorbed many new words from Norse and Norman invaders. Modern speakers can roughly understand it; here’s an excerpt from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, published around 1400:

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honóur, fredom and curteisie.

This is also about the time that English spelling starts going off the rails. There were no dictionaries; people wrote words as they chose to. (The word people itself might have been spelled peplepepillpoeple or poepul.)

And crucially, people still pronounced many of the letters that today seem unnecessary. Chaucer’s knyght, for instance, would have sounded roughly like ‘k-nicht’, with the ‘ch’ being a guttural sound like the ‘ch’ in the Scots ‘loch’ and a short ‘i’ as in ‘bit’.  People pronounced the ‘l’ in walk and talk and would and should, the ‘g’ in gnat, and the ‘w’ in wrist.

To complicate matters, there were many local dialects of English, often with very different vocabularies and pronunciations. At one time that guttural ‘ch’ sound would have been pronounced in words like rough and daughter and laughter.  But for unknown reasons that morphed into an ‘f’ sound in some places, or was dropped in others.

The ‘Great Vowel Shift’

And then there was the Great Vowel Shift, which started around 1400. No one knows its causes but it changed how many words were pronounced.

Before, bite was beet, to was toe, meet was mate, house was hoos and wife was weef. Food, good, and blood would have been fode, gode and blode.

Locking down the language

So this was the linguistic stew of the language when William Caxton set up the first English printing press in 1476.

Typesetting was complex and highly specialized work and efficiency was a priority.  Printing books faster meant more profits. There was an incentive to pick a spelling for a given word and stick to it, and to shorten words where possible — had instead of hadde. Such choices soon became conventions.

Over time, more (and often arbitrary) decisions on how words should be spelled crept into printing, sometimes based on their Latin roots or on the typesetter’s origins. The ‘gh’ in words like ghost, for instance, was apparently added by typesetters influenced by their experience working for Dutch printers.

Where we are now

In short, much of what confounds people about modern English spelling is that the mass production of books, and the resulting growth in literacy, began when English was spoken much differently than it is now and was changing fast. Yet the spellings we still use reflect that long-ago English.

Nor is that likely to change. There have been many attempts at spelling reform over the centuries and most have failed. (Noah Webster did have some limited success with his first dictionary in 1806, convincing Americans to opt for color over colour and center over centre, etc.)

So we’re stuck with our messy and illogical spelling for the foreseeable future. Regardless, it seems to work for us, maddening though it can be at times.

Sources

Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language, by Arika Okrent

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, by John McWhorter

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, by Melvyn Bragg

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, by Bill Bryson

The Story of English, by Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum, and William Cran