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Ghoti and chips or pie and mashed ghoughpteighbteau?: Making a meal of English spelling

John Murray

If you’re reading and understanding this piece, I’m assuming that you learned to speak English at some point in your life. Well done, but how  did you find it?

The chances are that you can’t really remember, but people who learn English as a foreign language tend to give mixed opinions on how easy it is to pick up.

Some will say it’s easy, and there certainly is a lot about the language that makes it relatively simple. It’s one of few languages in which nouns have no gender, plurals are very straightforward 99% of the time and its ubiquity in popular culture means that many foreigners have it hardwired into them from an early age anyway.

There are, however, a lot of things in English that make it a real swine to learn. There are a ridiculous number of homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things) and accents and dialects vary wildly from region to region. Most crucially though, even native speakers would be hard pressed to argue that English spelling makes any sense at all.

Most languages use a phonetic spelling system, meaning that once you understand how its letters behave, you’ll know how to say any word you read and, by and large, spell any word you hear. English doesn’t have this; its mishmash of Germanic, Norse and French influences means that it’s full of inconsistencies; even the keenest of wordsmiths can only make an educated stab at pronouncing or spelling a word for the first time.

Illustrating this, a William Ollier Jr. is credited to have conjured up the word ‘ghoti’ in 1874. It could be an unusual spelling of a style of facial hair, or it could be (and is) the name of a tribe from West Bengal. Ollier wasn’t referring to either of these though; he simply proposed ‘ghoti’ as an alternative spelling of ‘fish’.

The ‘gh’ in ‘tough’ is pronounced like an ‘f’
The ‘o’ in ‘women’ is pronounced like an ‘i’
The ‘ti’ in ‘action’ is pronounced ‘sh’

A pedant might argue that the example is contrived; ‘Gh’, for example, never makes an ‘f’ sound at the start of a word, and ‘ti’ only takes that pronunciation as part of the ‘-tion’ suffix. For me though, it’s a neat example of the peculiarity of English spelling.

More recently, an even more incomprehensible glut of letters has been thrown together as a feasible spelling for another staple of the British diet. Next time you go to a greengrocers, why not ask them for a sack of ghoughpteighbteaus?

The ‘gh’ in ‘hiccough’ is pronounced like a ‘p’
The ‘ough’ in ‘though’ is pronounced like an ‘o’
The ‘pt’ in ‘pterodactyl’ is pronounced like a ‘t’
The ‘eigh’ in ‘neigh’ is pronounced like an ‘a’
The ‘bt’ in ‘debt’ is pronounced like a ‘t’
The ‘eau’ in ‘bureau’ is pronounced like an ‘o’

If you’re lucky, you might get handed a sack of spuds for your efforts. If not, you might get clobbered around the head with one. Either way, it will get results.

With word processing now so common, spellchecks and autocorrect facilities have perhaps lessened the need to “know” how to spell words, but spelling mistakes are still regularly seen. Indeed, the shift away from actually memorising difficult words perhaps means we are sloppier than ever when it comes to writing personal notes by hand.

Another thing that’s far more common in English than in most other languages is silent letters. Particularly cruel on people who struggle to spell, these little troublemakers are usually relics of pronunciations phased out centuries ago, but still stubbornly cling on to words for no reason other than to catch people out.

How often in school did your teacher say “If you don’t know how to spell it, look it up in a dictionary”? Good advice, but how were we to know that ‘knife’ begins with ‘k’, ‘psychic’ begins with ‘p’ and ‘whole’ begins with ‘w’.

This vow of silence doesn’t end with these rogue letters though. In fact, there are only six letters in the alphabet that don’t have at least one example of appearing in a word – usually a very common one – as a silent letter. You can see how many of them you know here

This perhaps begs the question of whether it could be feasible to spell anything, or indeed nothing, pretty much however you like.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] week, we took a look at how seemingly garbled sequences of letters can, when compared to existing examples of their […]

    Pingback by Tough thoughts to plough through: the ‘ough’ phenomenon | Pressroom — October 2, 2013 @ 7:19 am

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