Monday, 1 June 2009

A different kettle of ghoti

"The only stupid thing about words is the spelling of them."
- Laura Ingalls Wilder

Incorrect spelling annoys people. So does bad grammar and strange punctuation. There are websites, blogs and forums devoted entirely to finding cases of peculiar or humorous cases of these mistakes. But while grammar and punctuation seem (on the whole) to follow logical rules, there are so many shortcomings in our current spelling system that it’s a wonder we still use it to communicate.

The well cited argument for spelling reform, commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, is that with current spelling ‘fish’ could be spelt ‘ghoti’. It wasn’t Shaw who actually made this particular statement, but it’s still a valid point. ‘Ghoti’ takes the sound made by ‘gh’ in rough, the ‘o’ in women, and the ‘ti’ in nation, which phonetically combined could be pronounced as ‘fish’. It’s no wonder that this is possible when you consider that there are nine pronunciations of ‹ough›:
  • Borough/thorough ə
  • Cough ɒf
  • Enough/rough ʌf
  • Bough/plough aʊ
  • Nought/thought ɔː
  • Through uː
  • Dough/though əʊ
  • Hiccough (hiccup) ʌp
  • Lough (Irish loch) ɒχ
Mark Twain satirically devised an ingenious plan to improve spelling by gradually dropping the ‘unnecessary’ letters of the alphabet c, x and y, removing double consonants, ‘fixing’ the use of g/j and w/o and completely adjusting the way we use vowels. Yet what was satirical then was not so ridiculous once. Before the printing press standardized written English, spelling was much more flexible. William Caxton introduced not only the printing press but also Dutch spelling habits, and began to homogenize English spelling. Language was further normalized by Samuel Johnson with his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), and since then dictionaries have usually been considered the most authoritative guide to correct spelling.

But here’s the catch: dictionaries are on the whole descriptive, describing the language that people do use, rather than prescriptive, prescribing how people should use language. So rather than set the standard form of a word, most dictionaries merely reflect the one that is most commonly considered acceptable. If the nation decided to start spelling ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’, you would soon find this updated in The Chambers Dictionary.

Because of this, readers occasionally question why we list the two alternatives of words such as recognize/recognise or organize/organise with the –ize suffix as the headword. The reason is that while both spelling forms are acceptable in British English, only the spelling –ize is regarded as correct in American English, making it more internationally appropriate. In fact, while some British speakers prefer the –ise forms, –ize is actually more etymologically accurate. The suffix was found in many Ancient Greek verbs as –izein, for example baptizein, to immerse, from which our modern baptize is derived. The –ise spelling was a later adoption from the French, and can be seen fixed in forms such as revise and advise.

Of course, as language isn’t a fixed phenomenon, we might just have to revise this all one day anyway. In which case, we’ll keep you posted.

Deborah Smith

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Rebekah Schmid said...

Nice one Debbie!

Stan said...

Thank you for this. The history of spelling fascinates me, and I find it curious how spelling reform and spelling standardisation are sporadically revived but ultimately seem doomed.

In "The English Language", Robert Burchfield wrote that he and Philip Gove (editor of Webster's 3rd) talked about trying to reconcile British and U.S. English spelling, but they did not pursue the idea.

In case you haven't seen it, here is Ben Zimmer writing about the origins of "ghoti".

Jeff Green said...

Any attempt at a standardised spelling is doomed to failure since there isn't a standardised pronunciation. Ass and pass do not rhyme for me but probably do for most English speakers. Add to that that we happily steal words from a huge variety of languages all the time. Muddling along and moaning about spelling mistakes appears to work well so let's stick to it!

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