When people first begin to study English orthography with me (and my scholarship community), one of the hardest things to swallow is that the trigraph <ugh> — not a digraph <gh> — spells /f/ at the end of a number of English words: tough, cough, laugh. When I first encountered the <ugh> trigraph, I also didn’t buy it. So I did my own analysis of all of the English words with <ugh> and found out that it was a perfectly elegant analysis.
Besides spelling /f/, <ugh> can also spell nothing at all, as in <through>, <though>, <thought>, <caught>, and a number of others. In such words, the <ugh> is an etymological marker, signalling connections to related words.
The more I get to know <ugh>, the more impressed I am with how much meaning it contributes to words in which it appears. It often marks a connection to words with a specific set of letters and/or graphemes: <g>, <c>, <k>, or <(t)ch>, <igh>, <w> or <y>. Consider the evidence:
bought ~ buy
sought ~ seek ~ beseech
caught ~ catch
taught ~ teach
brought ~ bring
haughty ~ high
naughty ~ naught ~ aught ~ wight
laugh ~ cachinnation ~ cackle
fought ~ fight
draught ~ drag ~ draw
ought ~ owe
And many more.
These connections are there to express meaning — not just surface, in-the-moment meaning, but centuries of meaning embedded in these words. They are not there to be effortless for children and foreigners to acquire. They are there like the chromosomes of words, tying together a present with a past and marking members of a family. Even unknown or unrecognized members.
Being aware of the <ugh> trigraph has enriched my understanding not only of individual words, but also of the broader, often breathtaking patterns of the writing system as a whole.
The one <ugh> word I had not been able to connect or explain until tonight, however, was <enough>. That one troubled me. How in the heck does that work? Well, check this out:
enough ~ nigh
Both derive from an ancient word family that denoted ‘to reach, to obtain.’ There, now didn’t that deepen your understanding of both words?
If, like many phonics programs and conventional wisdom, we continue to labor under the misapprehension that English has a <gh> that spells /f/, an <ough> and an <augh> that spell /ɔ/ (as in daughter or ought), and a long list of “exceptions,” we miss those meaningful connections. We miss opportunities to understand.
And that’s evidence enough for me.