Ghoti out of Water

Monday, July 7th, 2008

English is famous for it poor phonemic orthography — spelling and pronunciation have little to do with each other. This has led to all kinds of reform movements and unusual alphabets.

You may have seen ghoti presented before as an alternative spelling for “fish” — and as evidence of our dire need for spelling reform:

  • gh, pronounced /f/ as in tough /t?f/;
  • o, pronounced /?/ as in women /?w?m?n/; and
  • ti, pronounced /?/ as in nation /?ne??n/.

Although the first known published reference to ghoti credits one William Ollier (born 1824), the clever misspelling is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

Here’s where it gets weird. Shaw did indeed consider English spelling a mess, and that led him to hold a competition for a new writing system. The competition took place in 1958, and Kingsley Read’s Shavian alphabet was chosen as the winner out of the 467 entries.

Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion was printed in the winning alphabet, but, as you might imagine, not much else was.

Well before Shaw held his competition, Benjamin Franklin toyed with a new phonetic alphabet, which dropped redundant consonants — c, j, q, w, x, and y — and added six new letters:

Frankly — pardon the pun — I find many of his added characters ugly and unintuitive — although the n with a tail for ng works and has found its way into more modern systems.

Franklin was obviously trying to create a system fairly close to the one in use, just cleaner. I don’t think he succeeded, but I understand the aim. In 1867, Alexander Graham Bell’s father, Alexander Melville Bell, went in the opposite direction and devised a physiological alphabet based on the positions of the organs of speech for articulating various sounds. Melville Bell was a teacher of the deaf, and he intended his visible speech system to help deaf students learn spoken language:

You can easily imagine visible speech as some obscure elven written language from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which points to an obvious problem: current English readers can’t even guess at what visible-speech text might mean. If we could start from scratch though, it would make sense to go with a physiological alphabet.

Of course, in a sense, we all start from scratch in childhood, and children who start with a language like Spanish, where the spelling is almost perfectly phonetic, pick up reading much, much sooner than children who have to learn all the crazy rules and exceptions of English spelling.

Sir James Pitman, grandson of the inventor of Pitman shorthand, thought it made sense to teach English-speaking children a phonetic writing system, and then to switch them over to real English writing later. His Pitman Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.) has some elements that really appeal to me — and some that really don’t:

I love the ligatures — combined symbols — for ch, sh, and both forms of th. I also love the two symbols for oo. The vowel+e ligatures make a certain sense for English, but I find them jarring, since they match neither English (with the intervening consonant removed) nor most other languages. Anyway, it’s a fascinating little alphabet.

Of course, what we really use when we need to know a pronunciation is the International Phonetic Alphabet.

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