Jun 29, 2010 by

In yesterday’s postings, I mentioned the so-called phonographic writing systems, including the alphabetic ones such as the English writing system. The idea is that in a phonographic writing system a symbol (“graph”) represents a sound (“phono”). Of course, it is well known that English spelling is far from the ideal of representing sounds with symbols in a consistent way. Here’s just one example of a poem that highlights some of the inconsistencies (it was written by Lord Cromer and published in the Spectator of August 9th, 1902).

Our Strange Lingo

When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.
Think of hose, dose,and lose
And think of goose and yet with choose
Think of comb, tomb and bomb,
Doll and roll or home and some.
Since pay is rhymed with say
Why not paid with said I pray?
Think of blood, food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
Wherefore done, but gone and lone –
Is there any reason known?
To sum up all, it seems to me
Sounds and letters don’t agree.

Of course, English is only one of the many languages that employ an alphabetic system of writing and where “sounds and letters don’t agree”. For example, just as the English do not pronounce the final -b in lamb, the French do not pronounce the final -e in table ‘table’ and the Russians — the medial -l- in solntse ‘sun’.

And yet, it is the English spelling that has become the subject of so much ridicule. A discussion of this subject typically includes a reference to GHOTI, the fictitious spelling for fish, which may or may not be attributable to George Bernard Shaw: gh- for /f/ as in tough, -o- for /i/ as in women and -ti for /sh/ as in revolution.

Of course, as Ben Zimmer points out in his article, “if presented with ghoti, most people would simply pronounce it as goaty“. Because English spelling is not a free-for-all. And even the bizarre spellings are systematic in a way. In fact, all of the abovementioned “quirky” spellings are a result of sound changes. Simply put, “sounds and letters don’t agree” because sounds have changed and letters stayed the same.

For example, gh was used in Old English to represent the sound [x], as in German Bach — compare, for example, the English knight with the German Knecht (pronounced [knext]). But later the sound [x] was lost in English through the process called lenition (I call it the Laziness Principle!): in some words, [x] became [f], as in laugh, tough, rough, cough and enough; in other words, [x] was just dropped, as in though, night and the abovementioned knight.

In tomorrow’s posting, I will address the other two “quirks” of GHOTI: why -o- is pronounced /i/ in women and why -ti is pronounced /sh/ in revolution. As we’ll see, both of these “quirks” are a result of the special magic of the high front vowel /i/.

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