Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Myth of 'Ghoti'

(cartoon found at Caldwell Reading)

In reviewing the new book Reading in the Brain by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene (do check out the cool Matrix-like book page), neuro-journalist Jonah Lehrer repeats the common claim that George Bernard Shaw coined the use of the spelling of fish as ghoti to demonstrate how weird English spelling is. I myself repeated this same claim to many students in the past, and in a few business presentations. Within linguistics, it has long been a truism. Rarely did anyone think to challenge its veracity. Until April 23, 2008 at 11:59 pm that is. Over a year and a half ago, Benjamin Zimmer debunked this claim as false on Language Log (see his post here). Zimmer showed not only that there is no record of Shaw having used it, but also that the use of ghoti goes back at least to "1855, a year before Shaw was born."

It remains a fun little example, mind you, just not attributable to Shaw.

BTW, if you do a Google image search on ghoti, as I just did, you will discover an underground, almost cultish devotion to the word involving Jedis, bimbos, and indie rock bands, oh my.

4 comments:

Panglott said...

Mark Rosenfelder has another takedown of "ghoti" at Zompist; initial "gh" is always pronounced as a hard g. You can get much of the same traction out of "phoche" and plenty of other such fanciful spellings.

Chris said...

Yep, phonotactics have to be ignored to make it work.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yah, "ti" is never "sh" without the rest of the suffix, either.

Chris said...

I'll say this, I'm glad I never had to invent a spelling system, haha. It's non-trivial, to say the least.