Do you like to eat ghoti? In case you’re wondering what that means, consider
- gh as in enough
- o as in women
- ti as in nation
To spell it a more normal way, fish. Fish and chips is fried ghoti and fried ghoughghteighpteaux.
- gh as in hiccough
- ough as in thorough
- ght as in night
- eigh as in eight
- pt as in ptomaine
- eaux as in beaux
Ah yes. Potatoes.
At least we have an alphabet
English and most European languages use 26 letters that, in theory, signify particular sounds.
Chinese and other Asian languages use pictographs. It has 212 “radicals,” from which it derives all other words.
Chinese has about 50,000 pictographs and uses about 4,000 of them regularly.
Pictographs have one big advantage. They mean exactly the same thing no matter how anyone pronounces the words.
The Chinese people speak at least as many languages as Europeans do. In some parts of the country, they can’t understand the speech of people who live only a few miles away. But they can all communicate with the same system of writing.
Languages with alphabets can arrange words in alphabetical order. They allow crossword puzzles and other word games. They allow people to type quickly. How quickly depends on a person’s coordination, not the complexity of the language.
But languages that share an alphabet don’t agree on how to pronounce the letters. Most European countries and places that Europeans colonized use the Roman alphabet. In some languages, say Hungarian and Italian, similarity ends there.
The origins of ridiculous English spelling
Sixth century writers invented the first English spelling oddities. They borrowed some symbols from ancient runes. Then they tried adding h after other consonants.
They tried to spell their various dialects phonetically. Unfortunately, the pronunciation in one part of the island often got paired with a spelling used in another.
Take the odd English spelling of “one” for instance. Phonetically, our standard pronunciation ought to be spelled something like “wun.” It was pronounced that way in the south of England, but combined with a spelling from East Midland, whose people pronounced it “oon.”
When William Caxton started his printing business in the 15th century, he began to impose some uniformity to English spelling. No matter what dialect anyone spoke, they wound up using the spelling standard in London.
Even so, the concept of correct and incorrect spelling didn’t yet exist. The same word might have two or three spellings in consecutive sentences.
Shortly after English spelling more or less conformed to a single standard, its pronunciation underwent drastic changes. The “gh” in night and so many other words used to correspond to something similar to the German “ach” sound. But just as the letter combination became standard in spelling, the sound disappeared from the spoken language.
English also underwent “the great vowel shift.” Little by little, people started pronouncing “long” vowels differently. Basically, they placed the tongue higher in the mouth than before. No one changed spelling to match new pronunciations.
Then in the 17th century, scholars tried to make English more academically respectable. Meaning more like Latin. They invented all new English spelling oddities. “Dette” came to English from Latin “debitum.” So of course it had to be respelled “debt.” They didn’t suggest pronouncing the b.
English also borrows words promiscuously from other languages. And likely as not keeps the spelling. Since Middle English, “buffet,” pronounced BUFFit, meant to strike or hit repeatedly.
Much later, English borrowed a word from French to denote a long table with selections of food on it. The French spell it “buffet,” but pronounce it “buffAY.” So do we.
The first proposal to simplify ridiculous English spelling to make it more phonetic came nine centuries ago. Nothing much came of it. Nor has anything much come of innumerable proposals since then.
Trying to make sense of weird English spelling
I have already mentioned that our ancestors used to pronounce the gh in knight. They also used to pronounce the k when it comes before n, g before n in words like gnat, and the w before r in words like write. They stopped. Printers didn’t change how they spelled the words.
Printers only changed spelling under pressure from the folks who tried to make English more like Latin. In that case, sometimes we have started to pronounce the once-silent additional letters. We say the c in verdict, but not in indict.
Why doesn’t the ea sound the same in weak, great, bread, wear, and heart? Maybe the great vowel shift wasn’t so great after all. It didn’t affect every word the same way, or even at all.
English has a vowel sound in unaccented syllables called the schwa. No one ever decided what letter to use to spell it. So we use them all. Consider the unaccented syllables in amaze, tenacious, percolate, supply, and syringe.
Not having a special letter for the schwa causes two major headaches.
We derive nouns from adjectives by adding the suffix –ance. Or is it –ence?
We also make adjectives that mean “able to be” by adding –able. It gives us inflatable, able to be inflated. So if something is able to be reversed, shouldn’t it be reversable? Actually, no. It’s reversible. Ible to be reversed?
Oxford Dictionaries offers explanations of these English spelling oddities that make perfect sense. That is, as long as you can read them in front of you. Who can remember?
At least spell checkers actually help in these instances.
Sometimes we’ve stopped pronouncing the schwa entirely. How many people pronounce the second a in caramel, the first e in different, the second o in chocolate? Separate has three syllables as a verb, but often only two as a noun.
It seems the more pronunciation changes, the more weird English spelling remains the same.
I guess I didn’t make much sense of it after all, did I? Ghoti and ghoughghteighpteaux anyone?
9 fun facts about the schwa / Arika Okrent, Mental Floss. May 20, 2014
11 weirdly spelled words—and how they got that way / Arika Okrent, Mental Floss. January 4, 2017
The mother tongue: English and how it got that way / Bill Bryson (Avon Books: 1990)
What is the great vowel shift? / Melinda J. Menzner, Furman University
Words ending in –able or –ible / Oxford dictionaries
Words ending in –ance and –ence / Oxford dictionaries
Chinese character. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Others, source unknown