The “gh” is the F sound in enough. The “o” is the short I in women. And the “ti” is the SH sound in nation.
George Bernard Shaw created this little exercise to dramatize the absurdities of English.
As any of you who ever suffered through public school spelling tests, the correlation between how a word is written and how it’s pronounced is often nonexistent. Example: why is “one” pronounced won instead of own? Do you see an initial W? I sure don’t.
Obviously this is a terrible mess, one that demands a scapegoat. I nominate Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg. And The Great Vowel Shift.
When the Shift hit the fan
For reasons unknown, between 1450 and 1750 people in southern England began pronouncing vowels differently, marking the transition from Middle to Modern English. The Middle English A (“dart”) became longer (“date”). The Middle English O (boot) became (“boat”). And so on.
For painfully obviously reasons, this is called The Great Vowel Shift.
Could it have any relation to the dreaded “lazy tongue?”
Another phenomenon is “lazy tongue.” In pronouncing words, we prefer to move the tongue the shortest distance possible. Consequently, letter combinations that were once spoken phonetically, morphed into new, streamlined sounds. For example, the K in “kn” was dropped and became simply N. Other letter pronunciations were similarly dropped (climb, fight, pneumonia).
Under normal conditions these changes would be of little note because people pretty much spelled words the way they wanted. It was not unusual for a writer to spell a word differently in the same manuscript. As Mark Twain famously stated, “I respect a man who knows how to spell a word more than one way.”
The Gutenberg intersession
And then Gutenberg messed it all up by inventing moveable type around the year 1440.
(Interestingly, no one knows the exact date for one of the seminal inventions in human history.)
Previously, manuscripts were copied by hand, making books rare and expensive. Suddenly the printing press made mass production possible. This produced two enduring consequences: 1) literacy rapidly increased, and 2) spelling proficiency rapidly decreased.
The printing press created the need for uniform spelling. Otherwise you would struggle with the text. This naturally led to the creation of dictionaries to solidify meanings and pronunciation. Unfortunately, both were moving targets.
Darn you Dr. Johnson
Led by luminaries such as Dr. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, dictionaries set forever how words were spelled while their pronunciations were undergoing dramatic change.
True, there have been efforts to streamline spelling. Webster removed the U in words like “labour” and “harbour,” though some think he did so just to irritate the Brits.
Lazy tongue redux
Even as we speak, “lazy tongue” continues its destructive assault on the English language. A hundred years ago merry, marry and Mary had different pronunciations. Today they’re the same. “Pretty” is now priddy, “hundred” is often hunnert and “what are you” is rendered watcha.
Tru, ther hav bin many efforts over the years to make Inglish fonetic. All have failed, which is just as well because a new phonetic language would render all the books in all our libraries unreadable.
On the other hand, we’d be rid of those damn spelling tests.
Using “ghoti” as a reference point, what remarkable spellings can you concoct?
Alan Graner is Chief Creative Officer at Daly-Swartz Public Relations. He always got A’s on his spelling tests. So there.