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Why is igh a Way to Spell Long i?

Silent gh is sometimes combined with the letter i to form the long i vowel sound. This

igh pattern is most frequently found in the middle of words, commonly followed by the

letter t to represent the sound /īt/. Words such as right, might, flight, and sigh all use

this spelling pattern.

The igh spelling of /ī/ comes from Middle English, the form of English spoken when the

Tartars converted to Islam, the Black Plague stalked across Europe and the Hundred

Years War began. It was a long time ago. During that time, igh was pronounced as a

long i sound followed by an unvoiced, breathy sound made when the middle of the

tongue arches toward the hard palate, as in the German sound “ich.”1

Spellings and pronunciations changed frequently in the 14th and 15th centuries. Our

Modern English vowel pronunciations resulted from the Great Vowel Shift of the 16th

century, however, spellings were preserved from the earlier centuries, when silent

letters were pronounced. 2

Many ask why don’t we change all igh words to i_e spelling. There is a reason for

hanging on to the igh spelling. In 1690, the New England Primer was published in

Boston as the first American textbook for school children. It continued to be printed

for more than 100 years and formed the basis of spelling instruction for generations of

Americans. Combine that with the 1755 publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of

English, containing 40,000 words, and modern English’s standard, fixed spelling

patterns were set. At the time, authors of books were motivated to follow the spellings

put forth in these publications, because they feared their literary works could become

relics of a past age if the spellings included in their books became obsolete and unreadable to most people. This use of standardized spelling in literacy works

reinforced the uniform spelling of words, including the igh spelling pattern. 3

An additional reason not to change all igh words to i_e spelling of the long i has to do

with word meanings. The Igh spelling of homonyms carries the intended meaning of

the word. The word might conveys the meaning of something possibly, but not

definitely occurring. The word mite indicates a small bug or small, nearly worthless

coin. The reader can instantly discern which definition the author intends by how the

word is spelled. Homogenizing the spelling of words robs the reader of this instant

understanding, and requires readers to rely on contextual clues to ascertain the

author’s intent.

Hopefully, these reasons will help your students see beyond what appears to be a

capricious sprinkling of gh into words as one might sprinkle salt onto eggs. English

isn’t crazy after all!

1 The English Language of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow by Daniel Donoghue

2 Speech to Print by Eliza Moats, p. 85-89

3 Speech to Print by Eliza Moats, p. 85-89. 3

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