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You Say Potato & I Say Ghoughpteighbteau


If you look at the following possible variation of the word ‘potato’, you can see how ridiculous English spelling can be:Ghoti and Tchoghs, man and woman surrounded by question mark icons

  • P hiccough
  • O though
  • T ptomaine
  • A neigh
  • T debt
  • O bureau

One solution to this problem which was suggested by Ken Smith of Buckinghamshire New University, is to accept the most common misspellings as variants rather than correct them and then introduce altered spellings little by little.

Ghoti and Tchoghs

Ghoti and tchoghs  may not seem very appetisinGhoughpteighbteau, plate of fish chipsg to the average student of English; but if most of you realised it were “fish and chips” you might just change your minds.

Yet the spelling Ghoti  and tchoghs  is logical according to how many sounds are written down in English. The sound [f] is written ‘ough’ in the word ‘cough’ and if you look below, you can clearly see how we get all the other combinations of letters to be able to write ‘fish and chips’ as ghoti  and tchoghs.

  • F cough
  • I women
  • SH nation
  • CH match
  • I women
  • P hiccough

The strangeness of ghoti  and tchoghs  highlights the problems with English spelling. This has long confused foreigners and natives alike, and may be the reason why the national test results, which were released on 12th August 2008, revealed that almost a third of English 14-year-olds cannot read properly.

But why is English spelling so difficult in the first place?

Due partly to its mixed Germanic and Latin origins, English spelling is highly inconsistent. Three things have worsened this confusion.

  • The Great Vowel Shift in the 15th and 16th centuries changed the pronunciation of many words but left their spelling unchanged; and the invention of the printing press in the 15th-century initially used by non-English speakers helped to worsen the problem even further.
  • Second, misguided attempts to make English spelling match with Latin roots (debt and debitum; island and insula) led to the introduction of extra “silent” letters.
  • Third, despite interest in spelling among famous English-speaking linguists, English has never, unlike Spanish, Italian and French, had a central “academy”, or regulatory authority which is able to standardise the language.

There are reasons why spelling reform is difficult to carry out. Written language is more than just a phonetic version of its spoken form: it contains clues to meaning too. So although spelling English more phonetically might make it easier to read, it might also make it harder to understand. In addition, the number of accents and dialects in English mean that introducing a “phonetic” and logical spelling of English would benefit only people from the region whose pronunciation was chosen as the accepted norm. It would also need continual updating to make it match fashionable changes in pronunciation.

Some of the changes may be worth considering. It takes more than twice as long to learn to read English as it does to read most other western European languages, according to a 2003 study led by Philip Seymour of Dundee University. Standardising rules on doubled consonants would be a great help to learners of English. Removing silent letters would also help students. And as George Bernard Shaw said, using fewer letters would reduce the waste of trees and other resources. In this era of climate change, global warming and the disappearance of the poles, that is something that may be worth it.

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