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