About an year ago I had submitted a paper to a journal. The paper had mentioned Bernard Shaw’s famous ‘ghoti’ example, which he used to illustrate (according to him) the unpredictable and illogical nature of English spelling, and therefore of the Latin script as used for English. The paper was rejected, but that is not the interesting thing here. What is interesting is that one of the reviewers tersely commented that:
– Shaw’s “ghoti” example is bogus, as even Shaw must have known.
This is just the type of comment that makes me want to write a real red hot rant about reviewers. And you can understand that from the fact that I still feel strongly about it more than six months after I received the review. And the reviewer was most probably a senior scholar working on scripts.
Just in case you don’t know, Shaw argued that ‘ghoti’ is a plausible spelling for the word ‘fish’ because ‘gh’ can stand for ‘f’ (enough), ‘o’ can stand for ‘i’ (women) and ‘ti’ can stand for ‘sh’ (nation). Of course, I wasn’t the first to quote Shaw to argue that English has quite an idiosyncratic spelling.
The question that I want to ask is this: is the ‘ghoti’ example bogus, and if it is, did Shaw know this too?
I will tell you my answer: Shaw’s “ghoti” example is definitely not bogus. It is merely an exaggeration. And, yes, Shaw must have known that it is an exaggeration. And all the sensible people who have read this quote or used it, must have known very well that it is an exaggerated example. But it is not a bogus example. Shaw was a writer with considerable wit (which the above mentioned reviewer seems to lack). Writers use exaggerated examples all the time to make a point. There is a common understanding between the writer and the reader that something is being said with slight (or may be more than slight) exaggeration, but what is being exaggerated is not “bogus”: there is some valid point that needs to be made, but has to be made in way that will not sound like a boring repetition of some fact. Leave aside writers, even common people use this literary ‘device’ just to say something in an interesting way.
So, ‘ghoti’ definitely does not represent a typical English word. But it does illustrate the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling. It definitely is a valid example: a witty exaggeration which is supposed to be taken as a witty exaggeration. If your linguistic patriotism does not allow you to think bad of English in any way, too bad. That doesn’t change the fact that English words are spelled in a very irregular way. Yes, it is not as irregular as some people would like to claim (otherwise I would be making many more spelling mistakes), but it certainly is more irregular than many other languages. Is that a necessarily bad thing? I don’t think so. Many others have explained this point, so I wouldn’t go on about this, but this nature of English is a bad thing in some ways, and is perhaps even a good thing in some other ways. There is no need to feel bad about it.
By the way, Shaw tried to ‘reform’ the English script, but he failed. He even devised a phonetic alphabet for English and published a version of his play ‘Pygmalion’ in that alphabet. I am not at all enthusiastic about ‘reforms’ in languages or scripts, simply because I don’t think they are practical in most cases. But you won’t be baffled by this fact if you knew that he was heavily interested in phonetics and knew and admired Henry Sweet, one of the greatest phoneticians after the great ancient Indian phoneticians (that is a fact: I am not being patriotic). The protagonist of ‘Pygmalion’ (‘My Fair Lady’ on the silver screen) is loosely based on Sweet.
Years ago I had read a book called ‘More than Words can Say’. The writer of that book had called Shaw a crackpot. He didn’t give any particular reason. But my guess is that he said this because he too was one of the linguistic patriots, the kind who devised English language tests for aspiring immigrants to the USA in early 20th century and decreed that those who didn’t know English were inferior human beings. I wonder where the above reviewer is situated with respect to those linguistic patriots.
Just for the record, there is a claim that the ‘ghoti’ example actually came originally from some other spelling reformer, not from Shaw. I don’t think that affects what I have said above.