Skip navigation.
Home

The Worst of English

Presentation to the Unitarian School of Languages, Friday December 14, 2012

1. Phonemic representation

Can "ghoti" be pronounced "fish"?

gh is pronounced "f", like "enough".
o is pronounced "i", like "women".
ti is pronounced "sh", like "nation".

The first published reference is in 1874, citing an 1855 letter that credits ghoti to one William Ollier Jr.

One of the biggest problems of people learning English is that letters and letter combinations have an inconsistent sound. See the excellent poem "The Chaos" by Gerard Nolst Trenité which first appeared in his 1920 textbook..

2. Silent Letters

Could "ghoti" it be entirely silent?

gh using the silent "gh" in "though".
o using the silent "o" in "people".
t using the silent "t" in "ballet".
i using the silent "i" in "business"

English has a very high number of silent letters which are differentiated as follows:

- Auxiliary letters, where two letters are combined to a single sound. These aren't really silent as such, but rather are create new sounds which aren't represented in English as a letter (e.g., the "th" in "thin", the "ng" in "sing", the "ph" rather than "f" for "physical", double consonants such as "bb" in "clubbed").

- Dummy letters, which have no sound as all (e.g., "b" in "subtle", "w" in answer, "s" in "island", "k" in knight).

Sometimes silent letters are necessary due to the lack of consistency in English preceding vowel pronunciation (e.g., "rid" "ride").

3. A Multiplicity of Plurals

The plural form of a noun in English varies a great deal. In most regular cases it depends on the sound. With words that end with an unvoiced regular consonant, an "s" is simply added. e.g., "cup" and "cups", "hat" and "hats". However, a sibilant consonant becomes plural with "es" e.g., "kiss" and "kisses", "witch" and "witches". For other words an "s" is also added, but it is pronounced "z" (e.g., "boy" to "boys", "girl" to "girls", "chair" to "chairs". Old voiceless fricatives ending in "f(f,e)", drop this for "ves" (e.g., "life" to "lives", "calf" to "calves", "knife" to "knives", "elf" to "elves", "staff" to "staves").

Words that end in vowel-sounds have their own rules. Words that end with an "o" often become a plural with the addition of "es", which is also pronounced "z" (e.g., "hero" to "heroes"). However, this is not always the case; some end with simply "s" (e.g., "piano" to "pianos", "photo" to "photos"); this is typical with words that originate from Italian. With words that end in "y", typically the "y" is dropped and "ies" is added (e.g., "sky" to "skies", "lady" to "ladies"), except when the "y" is also preceded by a vowel (e.g., "day" to "days) and compound words (e.g., "lay-by" to "lay-bys").

Other words do not change in the plural form (e.g., "evil", "fish", "deer", "sheep"), including some population plurals (e.g., "Dutch", "Chinese", "Swiss"). Other nouns become plural by added "(r)en" (e.g., "child" to "children", "ox" to "oxen", and the alternate "brother" to "brothers" or "brethren"). Others still change vowel sound of the singular (e.g., "foot" to "feet", "goose" to "geese", "tooth" to "teeth", "mouse" to "mice"). Others still are completely irregular (e.g., "person" to "people", "die" to "dice").

With some words that have a classic Latin or Greek origin, the plural form can exist in multiple representations (e.g., "automaton" to "automata", "appendix" to "appendices" or "appendixes", "criterion" to "criteria" "formula" to "formulae" or "formulas", "index" to "indices", "matrix" to "matrices"). Those that end with "ies" remain unchanged (e.g., "species"), and those that end with "um" can either become "a" or "ums" (e.g., "appendum" to "appenda", "agendum" to "agenda"). A final "us" becomes "i", "era", "ora", or "es" (e.g., "alumnus" becomes "alumni", "radius" becomes "radii", "campus" becomes "campuses"). A final "ma" can be "mata" or "s" (e.g., "stigma" to "stigmata" or "stigmas", or "schema" to "schemata" or "schemas"). Nouns of Hebrew origin add "-im" or "-ot" or "s" (e.g.,"cherub" to "cherubim" or "cherubs").

4. Homophones, Homographs, Homonyms, Heterographs and Heteronyms

Homophones are words with the same pronunciation but different meanings. Homographs are words that share the same spelling, regardless of their pronunciation. Homonyms are both homophones and homopgraphs at the same time! Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, but are pronounced differently and have different meanings, whereas heterographs are spelled differently, have different meanings, but are pronounced the same. Most languages I have encountered have these! English has a *lot* of them.

A full table (with more, and examples)

Term 		Meaning 	Spelling 	Pronunciation	Examples
Homonym 	Different 	Same 		Same		bank, bark, can, die, dear, fluke, rose
Homograph 	Different 	Same 		Either		close, lead, wind
Homophone 	Different 	Either 		Same		mourning and morning, raise and raze
Heteronym 	Different 	Same 		Different	agape, attribute, bow, minute, read
Heterograph 	Different 	Different 	Same		aye, eye, I
Polyseme 	Different 	Same 		Either		man, book, bush
Capitonym 	Different 	Same 		Either		March and march

5. French Lords, Saxon Serfs

The English language, following the invasion of the Norman French, developed a class distinction between animals and their prepared meat for the table. Thus the Anglo-Saxon "sheep" becomes "mutton", "cows" becomes "beef", "swine" becomes "pork", "deer" becomes "venison". Interestingly words which serfs could afford to eat (e.g., "chicken") retained their Anglo-Saxon sound.

This also happens with so-called "swear" words. The Norman French version are considered "polite" and acceptable in good company, whereas the Anglo-Saxon equivalents are not (e.g., penis, vagina, copulate). Ironically sometimes people excuse themselves when using an Anglo-Saxon profanity with the phrase "Excuse my French"!

6. Orthography

Where did this unholy mess come from?

Orthography is the correlation between graphemes (written symbols) correspond to the phonemes (spoken sounds) of the language. Languages which are very phonetically consistent with their orthography include: Esperanto, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Castillan Spanish, Swahili, Mongolian, and Hindi. Language which are not phonetically consistent include: French (the latter is mostly consistent, but with complex rules), German, and possibly the worst, is English. Nearly every sound can be spelled in multiple ways, and most spellings and all letters can be pronounced in many different ways.

Why has this happened? English is mostly a combination of two language families (mostly Anglo-Saxon from the Germanic languages and Norman French from the Romance languages), with a little bit from others (Greek, Celtic) included. English dictionaries are based on etymology rather than pronounciation. Also, there is has never been a wholesale reform of English spelling, with the exception of the Webster dictionary, which was only adopted by the United States (e.g., labour and labor, centre and center).

Apropos I have been reminded

Apropos I have been reminded of James Nicoll's now-famous remark on the English language from usenet.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

James Nicoll, Usenet article <1990May15.155309.8892@watdragon.waterloo.edu> (1990).

As yet another example of the inconsistency in English, is the the prefixes un- and in-. The Germanic "un" is used to represent "not" in words such as "unrest", "unluck", "unattractive", and "unconstitutional". Deriving from the Latin "in" to represent "not" such as "inaccurate", "inedible". But this is not consistent either; "in" can become "il" (e.g., "illegal"), or "ir" (e.g., "irresistible"), or "im" (e.g., "improper"), or even just "i" (e.g., "ignoble").

Sometimes however the prefix "in" because an active verb prefix rather than a negative. This leads to the hazard where "flammable" and "inflammable" both mean something that can catch on fire.