Q: Do English words with “ch” pronounced as sh (e.g., “Chicago,” “chute”) generally have French origins?
A: The short answer is yes—but there’s more to the story.
As you know, there are three ways to pronounce the letter combination “ch” in English.
It can sound like k (as in “chasm” or “school”), like sh (as in “charade” or “brochure”), and like tch (as in “champion” and “child”).
The “ch” words with the k sound are derived from classical Greek, while the “ch” words with the sh sound come from modern French.
Most of the “ch” words with the tch sound come from Old English and are Germanic in origin (like “child,” “church,” and “each”).
However, some tch-sound words (such as “chase,” “challenge,” and “chance”) are derived from Old French, where “ch” was pronounced tch.
The “ch” letter combination didn’t exist in Old English, which used the letter “c” for both k and tch sounds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
After the Norman Conquest, Middle English scribes introduced the Gallic “ch” spelling. It was used in words from Old French that were already spelled with “ch,” as well in Old English words pronounced with tch and formerly spelled with “c.”
“French spelling habits were applied to native English vocabulary,” the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says, “and the word spelled cild in Old English, for instance, came to be spelled child in Middle and Modern English.”
Interestingly, the “ch” letter combination pronounced tch in Old French later came to be pronounced sh in modern French. But the English words with “ch” that came from Old French tended to retain the earlier tch pronunciation.
Finally, US place names in which “ch” is pronounced sh (like “Chicago” and “Michigan”) generally come from French versions of American Indian names.