Skip to main content

A different take on English

How to pronounce the word 'ghoti'? Easy, take a look at some other words in English, and take it from there; let's try tough, women and station. A new spelling for the word 'fish' is born.

English spelling really is in a rather polluted state. Years of geographic spread, international adoption and historic precedent have really taken their toll. I read somewhere that only 17% of native English speakers can spell the six words height, necessary, accommodation, separate, sincerely and business. One has to wonder what the red squiggle in Word is doing to help that number too.

There's already plenty of interest in making things better, from the Spelling Reform Movement to the distributed collaborative effort at Text messaging may go a long way to introduce subtle shortcuts and changes, but the adoption of SMS isn't nearly as widespread in the US as it is in Europe, so one can easily picture further divergence before improvement.

The problem of accent remains - the ambiguity in pronunciation allows for regional variety that many hold as part of their identity. Introduce a one-sound-one-symbol approach like UNIFON and everything is almost too standardized. A simple word like 'dot' is pronounced quite differently between Queens English and American English, yet it's very hard to quantify how using letters alone (daughrt would be my closest approximation to it here in the Northwest, but it doesn't even come close).

The silliness isn't just confined to spelling either. Bill Bryson, in his excellent book Mother Tongue, observes how odd it is that the Royal Mail delivers the post, and the US Post Office delivers the mail.

Despite all this, it seems things are good enough. English is the common international language and I can only consider myself fortunate to have had so many years or practice.