An Open Letter to the English Language

Let’s talk about ghoti for a second.

I had two pet ghoti when I was a kid. I was really into Sesame Street at the time so I called them Dorothy and Elmo and they were kind of useless. All they did was swim around in their tank and I couldn’t pet them or teach them tricks, but I loved them in that four year old way of mine. When they died we had ghoti for dinner and I don’t know if my mom meant that as a joke or if her dinner planning just worked out like that, but in hindsight it was pretty funny.

You may be wondering what ghoti are, though I feel like I’ve given you enough context clues to let you know that I was actually talking about fish. So if I was talking about fish, what was up with all that “ghoti” nonsense?

Now you may have heard of ghoti before, but for those who are completely unaware “ghoti” is an alternate spelling of “fish” based on the fact that the “gh” in “tough” is pronounced like “f,” the “o” in “women” is pronounced like “i,” and the “ti” in “information” is pronounced like “sh.”  Based on those rules, why shouldn’t “ghoti” be pronounced like “fish”?

We know “ghoti” is not pronounced “fish” because we know those syllables don’t work in that order, but let’s use this thought experiment, I guess that’s what this is, to talk about just how confusing the English language is.

I know it may not seem that way if English is your first language (kudos to anyone who learned English as a second language) since speaking has become more or less intuitive by now but let’s not pretend the fact that “tough” is pronounced “tuff,” “through” is pronounced “threw,” and “though” is pronounced “tho” makes any sense at all.

And speaking of words that look like that they should be pronounced the same even with slight differences in spelling, let’s talk about words that are spelled exactly the same but are pronounced differently. I found this list here and the more I read it the angrier I became:

  1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
  2. The farm was used to produce produce.
  3. The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  4. He could lead if he would get the lead out.
  5. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  6. Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
  7. I did not object to the object.
  8. There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
  9. They were too close to the door to close it.
  10. The buck does funny things when the does are present.
  11. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
  12. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

There’s probably a whole load of linguistic reasons why these words are pronounced like this and spelled like this, but for now I’m just confused.

And don’t get me started on silent letters like in “doubt” or “receipt” because those words used to be spelled phonetically as “doute” and “receite” until someone (I’m looking at you, 13th century English scribes) decided that people needed to be reminded of “doubt’s” roots in the Latin word “dubitare” and “receipt’s” roots in the Latin word “recepta.” Alright, fine, I’ll admit that I’m a bit of an etymology (not entomology, that’s bug thing) nerd, but this just seems unnecessary.   

Also, I’m all for cultural exchange and stuff and, again, there’s probably five textbooks worth of reason for why this is, but I’m pretty sure most Italian words originate in Italy. Is the same true for English? According to the 52 wikipedia pages of English words with foreign origins, the answer is “NO.”

And if you, dear reader, have noticed that I italicized one or two words in this post already, it’s because tone, the way you say words, not even how you pronounce them, can completely change the meaning of some words. Which is totally fine, communication is more than just the words you use, after all, but I think I’m still allowed to be frustrated by the fact that the phrase:

I never said she stole my money

Has SEVEN different meanings depending on what words is emphasized.

And there are so many words that mean basically the same thing (we sure do love our synonyms), but have such wildly different connotations; they might as well mean different things entirely. Being invited to someone’s cottage in the forest is very different than being invited to a cabin in the woods. If you get invited to the former, then you’re in a fairytale; if to the latter, a horror movie.

We all know which one we’d prefer.

Which, to be fair, if you’re dealing with the English language, you’re already sort of in a horror movie. Just one with less horror and death. So, not a horror movie, I guess. Whatever.

Well, I hope this was educational, and if you ever find yourself getting annoyed with an international student or someone with less than perfect grammar and pronunciation, kindly get over yourself.


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