In my July blog, I did a potted history of English, describing some of the reasons why English can be troublesome. The influence of other languages has had a major impact on the modern language we know today, affecting things such as plurals and the breadth of its vocabulary.
Another change as English developed was that it stopped being phonetic. This is, in part, due to changes in pronunciation without a change in spelling: printing presses and the like cemented English spelling as it was in the 14th/15th centuries and there was the Great Vowel Shift.
A phonetic language is one in which the letters are always pronounced the same way. Finnish and Turkish are two examples of languages considered to be truly phonetic. The advantage with such languages is that when one comes across a word for the first time it can be straightforward to determine its pronunciation, thus learning the language is so much simpler.
But English isn’t phonetic. This means that the same letters can make different sounds depending where they are in the word. Native speakers don’t tend to notice this (*), it’s second nature, but it causes trouble for non-native speakers. To demonstrate this, consider the following:
ghoti and tchoghs
You may have figured out by the photo that this is fish and chips, but how can ghoti and tchoghs be pronounced the same way?
Well, let’s break it down.
Let’s start with ‘ghoti‘ – you’ve probably read it as ‘go-tee’, the ‘gh’ at the start perhaps being the same as in ‘ghost’. But…
- GH – makes an ‘f’ sound, like in ‘rough’
- O – makes an ‘i’ sound, like in ‘women’
- TI – makes a ‘sh’ sound, like in ‘ration’.
And so, overall, ‘ghoti‘ (**) makes the same sounds as in ‘fish’. The key thing is that the letters make different sounds depending where they are in the word.
- TCH – makes a ‘ch’ sound, like in ‘itch’
- O – as above
- GH – makes a ‘p’ sound like in ‘hiccough’ (this is often spelt as hiccup, these days).
So, it is all a bit of a mess. We soldier on though (***), with words such as Worcester, Leicester and lieutenant which are pronounced not as their spelling would suggest (wooster, lesster, left-tenant). Centuries of evolution of a language can be hard to overcome and whilst there are those who want to change spellings, many find the thought of doing so impractical. Indeed at the (then) SfEP conference last year, when such an idea was discussed, it seemed abhorrent.
It would seem most people will happily carry on, tolerating the inconsistencies of English. In many ways, the language reflects our history and so perhaps by removing those inconsistencies, we would be removing the history as well. In any event, it helps create work for us proofreaders… which keeps me well stocked with tchoghs.
(*) Have you ever noticed the letter ‘C’ is pronounced three ways in ‘Pacific Ocean’?
(**) ‘Ghoti‘ was used in a Batman (****) episode, combining it with the French for eggs: Ghoti Oeufs Caviar Company.
(***) Here the ‘gh’ isn’t an ‘f’, unlike in rough. I have a headache…
(****) Adam West has always been my favourite Batman, possibly because of this.