My daughter studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. For me, this entails periodic visits by car to ferry her back and forth to London, in particular when she has large quantities of personal effects to move. Every time I drive down the M23, which morphs into the A23 after Pease Pottage Services, a sign appears indicating the turning to Warninglid and Slaugham. Now, leaving aside deliberations on why a village in Sussex should carry a name which one would more likely expect to be seen on top of a container of hazardous material, I would like to focus on the other name, Slaugham.
Go on. Say it. Except...er...how exactly? Slawm? Sloggam? Slougeham? Well, like any internet user, when confronted with a conundrum which can only be solved by reference to a reliable(ish) source, I consulted Wikipedia, which duly informed me that the pronunciation was Slaffam. Entirely predictable in being entirely unpredictable. All over the country we have other gems: Slough, Brighton, Broughton, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Clougha Pike, Happisburgh (no - you'll never get it; just check Wikipedia) to name but a few, many indecipherable without local help.
Now, that got me thinking. How would anyone know how to pronounce the name of such a village if one had never heard it pronounced before? I had assumed Slawm, based on the name of the well-known writer of excellent short stories, W. Somerset Maugham. But no. It had to be Slaffam. Do we then recast the pronunciation of the writer's name as Maffam? Somerset Maffam? Doesn't quite ring true. All these ruminations focused my attention on the nature of -gh- itself. In short – why?
The answers are manifold. Here they are, as far as I know them.
Old English -h- was pronounced a bit like ch in German achtung, or Scottish loch and Auchtermuchtie. After the Norman conquest in 1066, the French-speaking scribes started rewriting these words with a -gh- to represent the pronunciation. As a result, we have: bight, bright, daughter, doughty, eight, fight, flight, fright, height, high, knight, light, might, naughty, neighbour, nigh, night, nought, ought, plight (troth), sight, slaughter, slight, slough, straight, taught, thigh, though, thought, through, tight, wright.
The same happened to these words, in which the -h- originally came from -g- or -k-: enough - OE genog; neigh – OE neygan; bough – OE bog; bought – OE bycgan/boht; dough – OE dag; drought – OE drugath; plough – OE plog; weight – OE wegan; wrought - OR werken
In all the above words, the -h- sound disappeared over time, though the -gh- remained as a reminder of the old pronunciation. However, there was a small group of words where the -h- perfectly naturally evolved into an -f- pronunciation, and so we have the following: draught/draft – OE dreaht, laugh – OE hlaehhan; cough – related to OE cohhettan; rough – OE ruh; tough – OE toh; clough – OE cloh; slough - OE/ME slouh; trough –OE trog,
As if that wasn't enough, over time the scribes started seeing things which weren't there. By the time of Chaucer, Middle English had adopted thousands of words of Latin and French origin, and before long -gh- started poking its nose in where it was never welcome: inveigh, originally invey; caught, from catch, ultimately from Latin captiare; delight, originally related to delectable; haughty, originally from French haut, "high"; plight (bad situation), originally related to plait, "folded"; sprightly, originally from sprite, itself from spirit.
Then on top of all that, the Dutch got in on the act. When William Caxton introduced printing into England in the 15th C, he employed Dutch printers. Now, as printers were paid by the letter, certain letters were sneaked into certain words to make them longer and thereby earn more money. Added to that, the Dutch printers started messing with words in English that resembled Dutch words. As a result, we have ghost, from Old English gast, but influenced by Dutch gheest. In turn, ghost forced an -h- into ghastly and aghast. Later, Dutch gurken had a spelling change with -h- added in the 1800s to form gherkin. Other Dutch interlopers include these: freight/fraught, from Middle Dutch vracht/vrecht, and sleigh, altered from Dutch slede.
This leaves us with a few outliers from other languages. Italian uses -gh- to keep a hard g pronunciation before e and i, so we get ghetto and spaghetti. Interestingly, we also get sorghum from Italian despite the following u. Arabic has a voiced uvular sound (way down in the throat) which is rendered -gh- in transliteration, as in Maghreb, and that also gives us ghoul, from ghul, "evil spirit". Finally, Hindi and Malay refuse to be left out, Hindi with dinghy, from dingi, in 1810, and Malay with gingham from ginggang, via Dutch in 1615.
Finally, we have a strange word meaning “boastful person” with an unknown pronunciation: bighead, possibly pronounced beeyad, or biff-ed, or maybe even beed. Unless, of course, it's just a combination of big and head, in which case it's pronounced just like that. At last – a true pronunciation of the spelling of -gh-. I know there had to be at least one!