Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

How to Pronounce “Ghoti” (Or Why You Can’t Sound Out Words)

with 9 comments

Remember those grade-school teachers who told you to “sound it out” when you were learning to read the big words?

It eventually worked out OK for Billy Madison when his word was couch, but for me? Gotta’ tell you, Mrs. Dalius, that wasn’t very helpful advice when you gave me words like drought, cough, hiccough or colonel.

So what gives with the weird spellings and pronunciations?

There are entire books dedicated to English orthography that discuss our spelling and how it got that way. So there’s little chance I’m going to cover it all in these five hundred words. But here’s the extremely topical explanation.

As Ollie Williams would say, “Spelling’s old!”

illuminated-msThe spelling in English isn’t phonetic, which means there’s no one-to-one correlation of written symbols to sounds. But originally, it started that way.

There were no spell-checks or dictionaries when English, or rather its early forerunner, Old English, was first being written. So people just sounded it out and wrote down what they heard.

The main problem is that just like different dialects grow in different locations, pronunciation changes over time. So as English spelling very slowly began to standardize, words got locked in written form, even as how we said them changed.

For instance, the initial k and the gh (like the ch in loch) in knight were once pronounced. Similarly, what’s now the silent e at the end of so many words wasn’t silent at all. But linguistic evolution (some call it laziness in the speakers) eventually softened, changed or dropped these sounds in speech, but not in writing.

Here are two interesting pages on the pronunciation of Old and Middle English. The first includes audio examples of Old English with Modern English translations. If you listen closely, you can sometimes hear the relation.

The bottom line is that our spelling is largely based on how people spoke roughly four hundred years ago.

Though widespread changes in pronunciation like the Great Vowel Shift, a topic for another post, are one of the biggest reasons for the funky way we spell English, they’re not the only reason.

We’re an accepting lot.

English likes to take in new words from foreign languages. The first, and most influential, example of this is the Norman conquest of 1066, which introduced French as the language of nobility on Great Britain.

The Normans had tremendous linguistic influence on Middle English (spoken approximately from the invasion until the mid 15th-century), and they left their mark with the heaping majority of Latinate words we still have in English. Not only did it infuse English with foreign words, but it also popularized the Norman spelling conventions among the very different Anglo-Saxon language.

But this isn’t limited only to the 11th-century influx of foreign words. We still tend to pick up foreign words and spell them in their original way, even if it doesn’t jive with how English usually works.

Check out the links for these oddly spelled words and take a look at the pronunciation and the etymologies: coup d’etat, apartheid, khaki, contretemps.

So how do you pronounce ghoti?

It’s pretty clear that English spelling is all over the place. One fun example of the wackiness of spelling in English is ghoti—a suggested revised spelling for a common word.

So pretend you’re learning English. If you take the pronunciation rules from these three words: cough, women, and nation … how would you then pronounce ghoti?

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Written by Nathanael Green

May 6, 2009 at 9:00 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Great post. My favorite example, and one you mentioned, of the weirdness of English orthography and pronunciation are the “-ough” words:

    -dough
    -cough
    -through
    -tough
    -plough

    Brian O'Rourke

    May 7, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    • Brian,

      Those are definitely some of the oddest examples in English spelling. How odd that the same four letters in the same order can mean at least six different sounds?

      Let’s also not forget the spelling rules we learned, like “i before e except after c.” Oh, except for foreign, science, deity, eighty, heinous, their, weigh, rein, neighbor, caffeine, sufficient … and the list goes on and on.

      I pity people who are trying to learn English as a second language. Learning to spell must be a nightmare.

      Nathanael Green

      May 7, 2009 at 5:34 pm

      • Nate,

        Where does the “i before e” rule originate, anyway? Can we even call it a rule when there’s so many exceptions to it? I thought it related back to the GVS, but I can’t remember.

        Brian O'Rourke

        May 8, 2009 at 11:19 am

        • To be honest, I don’t know where the “i before e” rule really came from, but my guess is it’s just an old mnemonic device to help children learn to spell. Well … to spell at least a thin majority of ie words, anyway.

          Speaking of weird spelling … how about mnemonic? A silent m … seriously?

          Nathanael Green

          May 13, 2009 at 4:57 pm

  2. By the way, “ghoti” is pronounced like “fish.”

    Nathanael Green

    May 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm

  3. […] spelling is crazy (see my earlier post on “ghoti” pronounced “fish”). English is full of contradictions with words […]

  4. learning english is quite easy, there arem any tutorials on the internet and some audiobooks too ~:*

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