How 'fish' could be spelled 'ghoti': Irrational spellings in English

The Simplified Spelling Board suggested alternative 'rational' spellings but only some of those stood the test of time

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram


Published: Fri 13 Jan 2023, 12:33 AM

Last updated: Fri 13 Jan 2023, 12:41 AM

Last week we examined some of the differences between American and British spellings, many of which are attributable to the British remaining more traditionalist in reflecting fealty to the original roots of the words (often derived from French, Greek or Latin) while the Americans sought to rationalise their spellings in the interests of practical contemporary usage. The most significant attempt to transform American English spelling came in 1906 when the millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie set up the Simplified Spelling Board. But the endorsement of its proposals by President Theodore Roosevelt drew more attention and scrutiny than some of the new spellings could withstand, and in the face of a widespread backlash and much ridicule, the President rescinded his endorsement. The Simplified Spelling Board collapsed in 1920 upon Carnegie’s death, which ended its sole source of funding.

But some of its rejected ideas have continued to find favour with reformists. Last week we discussed those of its changes that stuck and have survived in American usage to this day, such as “program” for “programme”, “fiber” for “fibre” and “maneuver” rather than “manoeuvre”. Other proposals did not fare as well, because while they indeed simplified spellings of commonly-used words, they made the user seem semi-literate. The proposal, for instance, to eliminate superfluous letters that are not pronounced was acceptable in “catalog” or “analog”, but not if you converted “have” to “hav” or “are” to “ar”. These just didn’t look right, and people shrank from adopting them.

Since the Simplified Spelling Board’s proposals were all based on rational principles, it’s interesting to examine some of them today. One suggestion was to eliminate silent letters, not just at the end of words, but also within them, so “debt” would be spelled “det”, and “island” as “iland”. “Ghost” and “paradigm” would lose the unpronounced “h” and “g” respectively. Double consonants before a silent “e” would be trimmed, so cigarette would be cigaret, giraffe “giraf”, and (one change that did work) gramme became gram, including in “telegramme”. Most double-consonant word-endings would be reduced to single ones, so “add” would become “ad”, “bill” become “bil”, and sure enough, “spell” would henceforth be “spel”. If that seemed to many to be a loss — pardon me, a “los” — there was an exception for “short vowels”, so the double consonant was retained in “all”, “roll”, or “needless”. The exception, of course, immediately nullified the value of the change.

Another rule rendered less simple by insistence upon an exception was to drop the silent h in words like “character”, except before E, I, or Y — so “school” would become “scool” but chemist, architect, and monarchy would be unchanged. Similarly, the unnecessary “ue” endings would go in “prologue” (prolog) and “tongue” (tung), but not in “vague” or “rogue”. Confused? Sensibly enough, the superfluous “ough” would be eliminated in “although”, borough, and doughnut — and thorough, through and though would become thoro, thru and tho. But exceptions rose again: “For plough write plow, but not bow for bough.” Go figure — or should that be figger?

There were, however, entirely reasonable propositions like dropping the “ea” in words like “head” or “heart” and rendering them “hed” and “hart” respectively. Eccentricities like “hiccough” would be replaced by a no-nonsense “hiccup”. The French “eau” ending would be dispensed with, so “bureau” would become “buro”; scissors and scenery would lose their “c”s, and “guard”, “guess” and “guide” their misleading “u”s. “Young” would shed its “o” and “rhetoric” and “haemmorhage” their extra h’s. And “gh” would not be allowed to be pronounced “f”, so that cough would be spelled “cof” and laugh become “laf”. Had enuf?

There’s no doubt that English spellings are irrational. It was George Bernard Shaw who suggested that following English rules, “fish” could be spelled “ghoti”: “gh” as in “rough”, “o” as in “women”, and “ti” as in “motion”! But the interesting thing about language is that irrationality is part of its charm. It’s absurd, but it’s English, most people thought, and we love it the way it is. That’s why, however rational the Simplified Spelling Board’s ideas might have seemed, most people preferred to leave most words spelled the way they traditionally are — even when those spellings don’t really make any sense.

More news from Lifestyle