Writing Wednesday: When Does “Ghoti” Sound Like “Fish”?

It’s no secret that the English language is more than a little difficult to learn. With seemingly more exceptions to rules than actual rules themselves, English is one of the most frustrating languages to try and master. The playwright and literary critic George Bernard Shaw was a champion of the movement to simplify English spelling. Upon his death in 1950 Shaw left a large part of his estate to the spelling reform movement and requested that a version of his play Androcles and the Lion be published using a simplified alphabet.

“Ghoti” is “Fish”

The most cited example to demonstrate the frustrating spelling and pronunciation irregularities in the English language is the made-up word “ghoti.” Often attributed to Shaw but more likely from an anonymous source, “ghoti” is made up of three phonemes (the smallest basic units of a language) that, depending on the context, can be pronounced in many different ways. If you take the “gh” from “rough,” the “o” from “women” and the “ti” from “motion” you end up with the same pronunciation as the more common spelling “fish.”

“Ghoti” is Silent

By the same principal, the word that seemingly should sound like “goaty” can also be completely silent. Using the “gh” from “though,” the “o” of “people,” the “t” of “ballet” and the “i” of “business,” “ghoti” suddenly doesn’t have any sound at all!

George Bernard Shaw’s Challenge

With “ghoti” just one example of the unpredictability of the English language, George Bernard Shaw set out to create a simplified, exception-free alphabet. English has approximately forty distinct speech sounds but only twenty-six letters with which to express them. It’s for this reason that the same combinations of letters can sound completely different depending on the context. To eliminate possible misinterpretation of his writings, Shaw often used the Pitman forty-character shorthand alphabet. However, despite the satisfactorily unambiguous results of writing with this method, Shaw was aware that shorthand could not be typed and translated by the vast majority of readers. As he approached the end of his life he became more and more determined that English needed a major revision, and he stipulated in his will that a competition should be held to create a new writing system. It is the winning language of that challenge, devised by Kingsley Read, that has become known as the Shavian Alphabet.

The Shavian Alphabet

Kingsley Read’s winning language is made up of three types of letters; tall, deep and short. The defining characteristic of these letters is exactly what you would expect, with tall letters having ascenders (like the letter “d”), deep letters having descenders (“g”) and short letters having neither (“e”). All but four consonants come in pairs so that the tall character is unvoiced and the deep is voiced. Following these rules Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which we know as:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

…would be written as:

The drive to simplify the English language didn’t die after Shaw’s challenge was completed. For more information on the current champions of spelling reform, check out this article from the Texas Monthly.

What do you think? Would you be willing to relearn a language you thought you knew, to avoid the headache of keeping up with so many exceptions to the rules?

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