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A long time ago I read about this funny example posited by some relatively well-known author who spelled a word (I forget the word) in the most difficult way possible, but in a way that was totally congruent with orthographic rules from other words of English.

It was a simple word, like "fish" but he spelled it like "phystch" or something similarly absurd. It's a pedantic example, but sort of funny, too. Thanks

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    I approve of this question... since it's the origin of my username. ;) – Ghotir Jun 30 '17 at 14:12
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    My favourite "absurdity" of pronunciation is the name of the actor Sean Bean. It should either be Seen Been or Shorn Bourne. – TripeHound Jun 30 '17 at 15:30
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    @TripeHound Sean Is Irish Gaelic and Bean is English. – AbraCadaver Jun 30 '17 at 16:47
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    It's worth noting that it's only absurd if you assume English pronunciation has anything to do with spelling. It doesn't. – ell Jun 30 '17 at 18:47
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    The classic example of pronunciation not matching spelling is "Though the tough cough and hiccough, plough them through". – JerryTheC Jul 1 '17 at 12:38
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Ghoti (/fɪʃ/)

This fallacy arises from the incorrect application of the rules linking orthography to phonology1, resulting in an argument that 'ghoti' should be pronounced similarly to 'fish':

gh, pronounced [f] as in enough [ɪˈnʌf] or tough [tʌf];

o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women [ˈwɪmɪn]; and

ti, pronounced [ʃ] as in nation [ˈneɪ̯ʃən] or motion [ˈməʊʃən].

This is not a definitive list.


Key to the phenomenon is that the pronunciations of the constructed word's three parts are inconsistent with how they would be pronounced in those placements. To illustrate: gh can only resemble f when following the letters ou / au at the end of certain morphemes ("cough", "laugh"), while ti can only resemble sh when followed by the letters -on / -al ("confidential", "spatial") etc.

Also of interest is that at the time (around mid-1800s) many persons were intrigued with the 'Phonotypy and Phonography' of English, with Alexander J. Ellis presenting a number of absurd respellings, like turning scissors into 'schiesourrhce' by combining parts of schism, sieve, as, honour, myrrh and sacrifice. (Sacrifice was historically pronounced with a [z])


Source: Wikipedia, NY Times

1 Thanks to Azor-Ahai for confirming this. I originally thought it was an error with phonemes.

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    I think it's worth emphasising the erroneous part. It is simply not the case that you could spell fish this way since the use of these letters to represent these sounds is contextual and they would never, ever be pronounced this way in the given context. – Jack Aidley Jun 30 '17 at 14:27
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    @PeterShaw - I'm just quoting the original. (Which wasn't George Bernard Shaw, it's first appearance was in 1855 in a letter) – marcellothearcane Jun 30 '17 at 16:50
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    Is it unusual that I pronounce the ti in "confidential" like ch, not sh? – Todd Wilcox Jun 30 '17 at 19:01
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    @ToddWilcox no, that's extremely common in America. – Jasmine Jun 30 '17 at 20:46
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    it's worth noting that the 'gh' sound was originally a guttural - see other germanic languages – Orangesandlemons Jul 2 '17 at 12:20
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Another is ghoughphtheightteeau, which is pronounced potato.

Spacing it out: gh ough phth eigh tte eau

  • gh for P as in Hiccough
  • ough for O as in Dough
  • phth for T as in Phthisis
  • eigh for A as in Neighbour
  • tte for T as in Gazette
  • eau for O as in Plateau

Source: http://www.etni.org.il/farside/potato.htm

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    I'm somewhat more wary of this one since I have never heard of "gh" being pronounced as "p" under any circumstances. I suppose it happens, since English is so weird and varied, but it kind of strains the bounds of credibility. ("hiccup" is how I've always known the word to be spelled when pronounced that way) – David Z Jul 1 '17 at 0:00
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    @DavidZ - It's an old Britishism. – WhatRoughBeast Jul 1 '17 at 3:04
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    Phth isn't pronounced 't' in Phthisis, it's pronounced 'th'. – marcellothearcane Jul 1 '17 at 9:00
  • @marcellothearcane Is there a reason why there is no /f/ in Phthisis? It being a technical term, I would have expected that those using it won't have difficulties with the "full" pronounciation ...?! – Hagen von Eitzen Jul 2 '17 at 12:37
  • @HagenvonEitzen No idea, I wouldn't have thought it was an issue of difficulty, rather that's just how the language and words evolved (for example how did 'ph' become f in the first place? – marcellothearcane Jul 2 '17 at 13:02
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"Ghoti" is typically attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the 'relatively well known author' (I am sure he would have objected to the "relatively"!). Wikipedia says:

The first confirmed use of the word is in a letter from Charles Ollier to Leigh Hunt. On the third page of that letter, dated 11 December 1855, Ollier explains, "My Son William has hit upon a new method of spelling 'Fish'." Ollier then demonstrates that "Ghoti is Fish.

An early known published reference dates to 1874, citing the above letter. The letter credits ghoti to William Ollier Jr. (born 1824). Ghoti is often cited to support the English spelling reform, and is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, a supporter of this cause. However, the word does not appear in Shaw's writings, and a biography of Shaw attributes it instead to an anonymous spelling reformer.

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    Some links would be nice. And not just to untrustworthy wikipedia. – AmE speaker Jun 30 '17 at 14:37
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    @Clare: Strange, you don't seem to object to the use of "untrustworthy" Wikipedia in the accepted answer. – DarkDust Jun 30 '17 at 15:17
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    @Clare: And why is Wikipedia less trustworthy than any other internet source? – jamesqf Jun 30 '17 at 17:17
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    @alephzero: And anyone who wants to can put up a web site touting their crank theory-du-jour. The difference is that if something is on Wikipedia, it is likely to be noticed and eventually corrected, while the crank theory website is owned and modifiable only by the crank. – jamesqf Jun 30 '17 at 19:22
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    @alephzero Wikipedia pages that are involved in edit wars or constantly being vandalized do not become definitive reference sources. Also, if you actually read the Wikipedia reference you will find the original, actual references from which the information was derived. If you doubt the information, simply check the references yourself. Not that anyone ever does, because we're all far too lazy and self-righteous to actually do such a thing. – barbecue Jun 30 '17 at 22:11

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