'ghoti' · The Spectator · Tom Burkard

Why ‘ghoti’ is a red herring

In my last posting, I wrote that Rod Liddle’s invocation of ‘ghoti’ as a way of spelling ‘fish’ – ostensibly to demonstrate how ‘unphonetic’ (ridiculous term!) English is – was nonsensical.
I also wrote that the notion had been entirely discredited. Well, apparently not! Some of my readers have informed me that they are confronted with it from time to time. I was myself a few years ago. The occasion was a talk I was giving at the University of Canberra, when one of the ‘reading specialists’ tried to slap me round the head with this wet ‘ghoti’.
So, how does it work and why is this alleged example so completely implausible? Well, first, gh is a spelling alternative for the sound ‘f’, but never at the beginning of a word. Then, the letter o can represent the sound ‘i’ in ‘women’, but it’s a one-off or so infrequent as not to be worth considering. Finally the combination of letters ti can represent the sound ‘sh’ but only as part of suffixes, such as ‘station’, or ‘essential’, as well as a few other words, like ‘initial’, for example.
According to Wikipedia, ‘linguists have protested that the placement of the letters in the constructed word [ghoti] are inconsistent with the claimed pronunciation’.
However, this isn’t quite right. To say that we pronounce letters puts the cart before the horse. Letters or spellings represent sounds: there are the sounds of the language and there are the agreed (conventional) spellings for those sounds. Sounds come first and the spellings, otherwise meaningless squiggles on the page, symbolise the sounds. So, while it is perfectly acceptable to spell the sound ‘f’ at the beginning of the word ‘fish’ with the spelling f, or even ph (as in a ‘phishing’ trip, an Internet scam, or ‘Phish’, an American rock band!), the combination gh is not – currently!
The real point is that the English spelling system is actually highly regular and, with good teaching and enough practice, can be learned by just about anyone.

I see that this week’s Speccie carries a letter (‘Phonic boom’) from Tom Burkard, Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, admonishing Rod Liddle for his anti-phonics article last week.