Plenty more ghoti in the sea

English is a tough language to learn. Recently I was discussing difficulties I was having with Chinese pronunciation with some native Chinese speakers, and they told me that Chinese pronunciation was far easier than English. They had a point.

Whilst English is not a tonal language like Chinese (where the same word said 5 different ways can have 5 very different meanings – for example, māo means a cat, but mào means a hat, and máo means hair), at least Chinese pronunciation is regular. That is to say, if you see the word māo, at least you instantly know how to pronounce it. Their difficulty with English is not with learning the rules of pronunciation, but learning which words adhere to them as well as the vast number of words that don’t.

My problem with Mandarin is mainly one of listening: my ear is not finely tuned to the Chinese tonal system, so it’s difficult for me to make out exactly which tone a speaker is using – especially as they speak so quickly. However, with English one of the main problems is one of reading – just because a word is presented to you in a certain way, there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to pronounce it correctly, even if you follow the rules to the letter.

A native English speaker doesn’t really think about these things, we simply learn not to trust spelling for pronunciation. To demonstrate that I understood their problem, I pulled an old trick I learned at school: I took a piece of paper, and wrote the word ghoti on it, and then asked them how to pronounce it.

The majority of them went with “go-tee” or “got-ee”, as do most people unfamiliar with this particular English play on words. When I told them that it’s a made up word and it’s pronounced “fish”, they could only exchange confused looks with one another until I explained it.

This is an old trick, of course: for the ghoti/fish trick to work you simply have to be selective about how which particular pronunciations of certain letter combinations you choose to use. Take the gh from rough, the o from women, and the ti from patient, and you end up with a very different sound from what the word ghoti would initially imply.

Of course I emphasized that this was a made up word, and I was just trying to demonstrate just how fiendish English pronunciation can be, and that “fish” was spelled, well, how it sounds.

However, it’s an interesting point – native English speakers so rarely think about how difficult our language is for foreigners to learn unless they study another language in depth. So, next time you hear a non-native English speaker butcher a word, be a little more forgiving – it’s tough!