June 27, 2010

repeat with me: the ghoti-joke is a myth

There is no evidence that the playwright George Bernard Shaw ever said that English spelling was so little systematic, the word "fish" might as well be spelled as "ghoti" ("gh" as in "laugh", "o" as in "women," and "ti" as in "nation," in case you were wondering). And yet, the lame ghoti-joke is attributed to GBS over and over again. One cannot set the record straight often enough. Here's a recent attempt by Ben Zimmer:

English spelling does not actually work by stitching together parts of words in Frankensteinian fashion. Ghoti falls down for the same reason, if you stop to think about it. Do we ever represent the “f” sound as gh at the beginning of a word or the “sh” sound as ti at the end of a word? And for that matter, is the vowel of fish ever spelled with an “o” in any word other than women? English spelling might be messy, but it does follow some rules.

[...] Victorians often amused themselves with genteel language games, so why not one involving the rejiggering of common words? Into the 20th century, other jokey respellings made the rounds, such as ghoughphtheightteeau for potato (that’s gh as in hiccough, ough as in though, phth as in phthisis, eigh as in neigh,tte as in gazette and eau as in beau).

Ghoti was elevated above these other spelling gags when it became attached to the illustrious name of Shaw — who, like Churchill and Twain, seems to attract free-floating anecdotes. If Shaw never said it, who was responsible for the attribution? I blame the philologist Mario Pei, who spread the tale in The Los Angeles Times in 1946 and then again in his widely read 1949 book, “The Story of Language.” Pei could have been confusing Shaw with another prominent British spelling reformer, the phonetician Daniel Jones (said to be one of the models for Shaw’s Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion” ), since Jones really did make use of the ghoti joke in a 1943 speech.

With Shaw’s supposed imprimatur, ghoti lingers with us. Jack Bovill, chairman of the Spelling Society, told me that despite its jocularity, ghoti is nonetheless “useful as an example of how illogical English spelling can be.” I beg to differ: if presented with ghoti, most people would simply pronounce it as goaty. You don’t have to be a spelling-bee champ to know that written English isn’t entirely a free-for-all.

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