Did you ever notice that “-ough” at the end of words can be pronounced six different ways?
I never did, until James Harbeck pointed it out on editors.ca: “Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough.”
According to Harbeck, the word endings trace back to the same Old English consonant g, also written as h. In some areas, the pronunciation softened, and in Middle English, this spirant version was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh. With the passage of still more time, speakers stopped making any sound at all, but the written words stayed the same. Then technology intervened: Printing presses in Europe had no yogh, so it was shortened to gh. The vowels evolved in a similar fashion, and we ended up with word endings that are head-scratchers for people trying to understand our complex language.
Kind of like people.
We share a common root, we choose to dress up our common elements in different clothing, we change our vocal expression over time, we sometimes exist silently, we take the shape of our environment, technology intervenes to send us off in new directions, and we are head-scratchers for people trying to understand our complexities.
Words, like people, are living, evolving things, beautifully complex and not to be taken lightly.