"Ghoti" = "Fish"

Josef Essberger

Some languages are "phonetic". That means that you can look at a word and know how to say it. English is not phonetic. You cannot always look at an English word and know how to say it. You cannot always hear an English word and know how to spell it.

Consider the following question as an example:

How do we pronounce the word "ghoti"?

The answer is "fish".

How can "ghoti" and "fish" sound the same?

  • gh = f as in rouGH
  • o = i as in wOmen
  • ti = sh as in naTIon

Of course, this is a joke*. The word "ghoti" is not even a real word. But it shows the inconsistency of English spelling.

It is very important to understand that English spelling and English pronunciation are not always the same.

Same spelling - different sound

Do not place too much importance on the spelling of a word. The more important thing in understanding English is the sound.

Here are five words that end in "ough". In each word, the "ough" has a different pronunciation:

  • bough rhymes with cow
  • cough rhymes with off
  • rough rhymes with puff
  • though rhymes with Jo
  • through rhymes with too

Many words have exactly the same spelling but are pronounced differently when the meaning is different. These words are called "homographs". Here are some examples:

  • bow (noun: front of ship) rhymes with cow
  • bow (noun: fancy knot) rhymes with go

  • lead (verb: to guide) rhymes with feed
  • lead (noun: metal) rhymes with fed

  • wind (noun: airflow) rhymes with pinned
  • wind (verb: to turn) rhymes with find

Different spelling - same sound

Many words have different spellings but are pronounced exactly the same. These words are called "homophones". Here are some examples:

  • sea, see
  • for, four
  • hear, here
  • one, won
  • knight, night
  • him, hymn
  • to, too, two

What can we learn from all this? We can learn that the sound of a word is more important than the spelling.

Of course, it is good to spell correctly. But to help you understand spoken English and many rules of English, you should think first about the sound of the words. Do not worry too much at first about the spelling.

Take, for example, the rule about pronouncing the past simple "-ed" ending of regular verbs. You have probably learned that when a verb ends in "d" or "t", we add "-ed" and pronounce it /Id/ as an extra syllable.

wanT wantED

So why do we have the following?:

divide dividED

"Divide" does not end in "d". It ends in "e". But it does end in a /d/ sound. With this rule, it is the sound at the end of a word that matters, not the letter. You must think about the spoken word, not the written word.

This is only one example of the importance of sounds in English. There are many more examples!

*The ghoti = fish device is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) but references to it have been found that predate Shaw.

© 2009 Josef Essberger