Pronunciation – How to pronounce ‘ghoti’ and why

Pronunciation / Spelling Point of the Month – How to pronounce ‘ghoti’


Ghoti and tchoghs may not immediately strike readers as staples of the British diet, yet the spelling, easily derived from other words, highlights the problems of English spelling.

You may be wondering about the picture above and what it has to do with the word ‘ghoti’.

According to Bernard Shaw, a famous linguist, the rules of English spelling are so bizarre that they can allow ‘ghoti’ to be pronounced in an unexpected way. Shaw took the last two letters of the word ‘tough’ pronounced ‘tuf’ and put it in the first sound position. He then took the ‘o’ of ‘women’ pronounced ‘wimin’ and stuck that in second place. Finally he took the ‘ti’ of ‘nation’ pronounced‘nashon’, to complete the word.

I can tell you now that ‘ghoti’ is pronounced… ‘fish’. Oh, the bizarreness of English orthography. It really works… But how, why, you may ask…

But did you ever wonder why we spell some words in English in ways, which bear no resemblance to the way they are pronounced, for example, Cough, Sought, Thorough, Thought, and Through. Would you believe me after considering all this, that the distribution of the two main pronunciations of gh in English are amazingly regular?… No, I thought not.

Anyway, now to convincing you. The gh was originally pronounced like the ch in Scottish loch ‘lake’ or German lachen ‘laugh’ (like you’re clearing your throat). In phonetic script, the symbolic alphabet for accurately representing sounds rather than letters, the sound is symbolized as [x] (where the brackets indicate that we are using phonetic script, not the regular alphabet). The preceding u represented lip-rounding (watch yourself pronounce the sound [u] in the mirror–what happens to your lips) which was pronounced simultaneously with gh. When the gh disappeared because it became so softly pronounced, lip-rounding changed to lip-biting (check where your teeth are when you pronounce [v] or [f]). So gh ended up pronounced [f] because of the disappearance of a softly pronounced consonant and a shift of lip activity. ‘gh’ developed into [f] in words like, laugh, enough, rough, tough, cough. Then further pronunciation changes happened disguising the original reason for the development.

However, gh did not develop into [f] everywhere: bought, sought, caught, daughter, fought, ought, taught, slaughter

In fact, the original sound [x] represented by gh in English is the same as the [x] sound in Germanic languages from which English and other Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Flemish, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian) historically developed. Take a look at the following words from German, where the sound is usually represented by ch. The sound goes back to an even older stage when it was pronounced k. To see this, compare the Germanic words in English with related words borrowed from Latin.

English German Latin
eight achten octopus [oktopus]
fight fechten infect [infekt]
right Recht rectify [rektify]
high hoch .

Germanic and Latinate dialects come from the same source, a theoretical language called Indo-European by linguists. This language is the source of most European and some Asian languages including, English French, German, Greek, Urdu, Hindi Punjabi, Welsh, Russian, Latin and countless others. If all these seemingly distant languages are related, then perhaps all the languages of the world come from one source? Maybe one day I will talk about this amazing discovery by linguists.

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