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210 What is "ghoti"? (Spelling - alt.usage.english)


This article is from the alt.usage.english FAQ, by Mark Israel misrael@scripps.edu with numerous contributions by others.

210 What is "ghoti"? (Spelling - alt.usage.english)

(notes by Jim Scobbie)

It's an alternative spelling of "chestnut". :-) O.K., it's
"fish", re-spelled by a Victorian spelling-reform advocate to
demonstrate the inconsistency of English spelling: "gh" as in
"cough", "o" as in "women", "ti" as in "nation".

"Ghoti" is popularly attributed to George Bernard Shaw. But
Michael Holroyd, in "Bernard Shaw: Volume III: 1918-1950: The Lure
of Fantasy" (Chatto & Windus, 1991), p. 501, writes that Shaw "knew
that people, 'being incorrigibly lazy, just laugh at spelling
reformers as silly cranks'. So he attempted to reverse this
prejudice and exhibit a phonetic alphabet as native good sense
[...]. But when an enthusiastic convert suggested that 'ghoti'
would be a reasonable way to spell 'fish' under the old system
[...], the subject seemed about to be engulfed in the ridicule from
which Shaw was determined to save it." We have not been able to
trace the name of the "enthusiastic convert". Bill Bedford
(billb@mousa.demon.co.uk) writes: "I seem to remember a film/TV
clip of Shaw himself referring to this - but don't ask for chapter
and verse."

It has also been suggested that "ghoti" could be a spelling
of "huge": "h" having its usual value, [h]; "g" making [j], the
sound of "y" in yes, after the *following* consonant as in
"lasagne"; "o" = [u] as in "move", "t" = [d] as in "Taoism", and
"i" = [Z] as in one pronunciation of "soldier".

In the same vein is "ghoughpteighbteau":

P    hiccough
O    though
T    ptomaine
A    neigh
T    debt
O    bureau

Supposedly, this is an example of how awful English spelling is,
and why it ought to be reformed. In fact, it argues that English
spelling is kind and considerate, and easy. Why? Because "potato"
*isn't* spelled "ghoughpteighbteau". It's spelled "potato"! O.K,
O.K., "neigh" isn't spelt "ne", and we can get into all the old
arguments, but these really fun examples overstate the case and
strike those of us opposed to spelling reform as self-defeating.

I before E except after C (notes by Mark Wainwright)

This old schoolroom spelling rule is supposed to help remember
the spelling of vowels pronounced /i:/, the long "e" sound of "feed".
It has no value for words where the vowel is pronounced in any other
way, the key fact which people bemused by many "exceptions" to the
rule usually do not realise. A version often cited in the U.K.
makes the restriction clear:

When the sound is /i:/,
it's I before E
except after C.

A common U.S. version:

or when pronounced /eI/
as in "neighbour" and "weigh".

is misleading, as "ei" has many other pronunciations, as in, for
instance, "height", "heifer", and "forfeit". The rule also fails to
apply to names (Sheila, Keith, Leigh, etc.).

"I before E": Properly applied, the rule is a very useful guide for
people who are not naturally excellent spellers; those who are may
look out for themselves. To an RP speaker, the exceptions in common
use are very few: they are "seize", "inveigle", "caffeine",
"protein", and "codeine". (The last three were originally
pronounced as three-syllable words.) Other dialects pronounce a few
other -ei- words with /i:/, making extra exceptions: "either" and
"neither" (RP vowel: /aI/, as in "pie"), "geisha" and "sheik(h)"
(RP: /eI/, as in "say"), and "leisure" (RP: /E/, as in "get"). (Of
course, derivatives of the above words, such as "seizure",
"decaffeinate", and "sheik(h)dom", are spelled similarly.) There
are many exceptions in Scots, so speakers with a large Scots
vocabulary may as well give up on this rule. The vowel in "weir"
and "weird" is usually quite different, as comparison of "weird" and
"weed" will show; for most speakers, "weird" has a diphthong.

"except after C": Fowler, who called the rule "very useful", noted:
"The c exception covers the many derivatives of Latin "capio"
[= "take"], which are in such common use ("receive", "deceit",
"inconceivable"; cf. "relieve", "belief", "irretrievable") that a
simple rule of thumb is necessary." For most Britons, /i:/ after C
is always "ei" rather than "ie", except in "specie" and "species".
Americans generally pronounce -cies and -cied in words derived from
-cy endings (e.g., "fancies" and "fancied" from "fancy") with /i:/
rather than /I/, making these words exceptions. Still, few people
have any difficulty pluralizing -y, so such speakers should still be
able to extract some value from the rule, by the application of a
little common sense.


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