Al­pha­bet Soup

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the pur­pose of these ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

English spell­ing is bizarre. The Ir­ish play­wright Ge­orge Bernard Shaw is said by many to have claimed that the word ‘fish’ could le­git­i­mately be spelled ‘ghoti,’ by us­ing the ‘gh’ sound from ‘enough,’ the ‘o’ sound from ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ sound from ‘ac­tion.’ How­ever, there’s not a shred of ev­i­dence that Shaw, a noted ad­vo­cate for spell­ing re­form, ever brought up ghoti. The true ori­gins of ghoti go back to 1855, be­fore Shaw was even born. In De­cem­ber of that year, the pub­lisher Charles Ol­lier sent a let­ter to his good friend Leigh Hunt, a noted poet and lit­er­ary critic., stat­ing, “My son Wil­liam has hit upon a new method of spell­ing ‘Fish.”

As a lan­guage fancier in mid-19th­cen­tury Eng­land, Wil­liam Ol­lier would surely have come into con­tact with the strong cur­rent of spell­ing re­form — cham­pi­oned by the likes of Isaac Pit­man, now vaguely re­mem­bered for in­vent­ing a pop­u­lar sys­tem of pho­netic short­hand: what Pit­man called “phonog­ra­phy.” In 1845, Pit­man’s Phono­graphic In­sti­tu­tion pub­lished “A Plea for Phono­typy and Phonog­ra­phy,” by Alexan­der J. El­lis, a call to arms that laid the ground­work for ghoti and other mock­eries of English spell­ing. To make the case for re­form, El­lis pre­sented a num­ber of ab­surd re­spellings, like turn­ing scis­sors into schiesour­rhce by com­bin­ing parts of SCHism, sIEve, aS, hon­OUr, myRRH and sac­ri­fiCE. (If you’re won­der­ing about the last part, the word sac­ri­fice has his­tor­i­cally had a vari­ant pro­nun­ci­a­tion end­ing in the “z” sound.)

El­lis thought scis­sors was a down­right pre­pos­ter­ous spell­ing of siz­erz, and he went about cal­cu­lat­ing how many other ways the word could be ren­dered. At first he worked out 1,745,226 spellings for scis­sors, then ad­justed the num­ber up­ward to 58,366,440, be­fore fi­nally set­tling on a whop­ping 81,997,920 pos­si­bil­i­ties. Isaac Pit­man and his brothers liked to use the scis­sors ex­am­ple when pros­e­ly­tiz­ing for pho­netic spell­ing, and the 58 mil­lion num­ber even worked its way into “Ri­p­ley’s Be­lieve It or Not!”

In English, all the let­ters for vow­els have more than one, of­ten sev­eral, dif­fer­ent sounds: name, all, act, an­other, any, car, a. In St Lu­cian Cre­ole, each let­ter rep­re­sents one sound. This sound sel­dom changes: bab-la, bat-la, kat-la, tab-la, pat-la, wat-la, dat-la. In English, some are even silent: comb, name, wreck, sign, whis­tle, pneu­matic, doubt, straight, know, write, re­ceipt, mess, fas­ten, and even thinkin(g). I could go on for­ever. In fact many a small is­land state could prob­a­bly bal­ance its bud­get if it used the sav­ings from un­necce­sary let­ters wisely.

In English a com­bi­na­tions of let­ters, can have many, many dif­fer­ent sounds, take OU for ex­am­ple: cough, house, enough, through, course, although, and so on. The same spell­ing of a word can have dif­fer­ent sounds. We call these het­eronyms: sow - sow, bow - bow, row - row, lead – lead, in­valid – in­valid, in­sens – in­sens. In English, the same sound may be rep­re­sented by many dif­fer­ent let­ter com­bi­na­tions: I, buy, high, sky, my, thigh, tie, why, write, rite, right, play­wright. And then of course there are hor­rors like: so, sew, sow and sough. Do you even know what sough means? The same sound can have dif­fer­ent spellings in the same word: judge, hey­day, high-wire, dis­miss, by­line, be­seech. It re­ally is quite a mess.

St Lu­cian does not use X and Q. In­stead it uses the com­bi­na­tions ks and kw to make the sounds: taks, ak­si­dan, èk­sèpté, siksé, kwapo, kwab, kwa, tik­was, kwa­vat, kwéyòl. Two let­ters, C& U, never ap­pear alone in St Lu­cian Cre­ole. Cal ways ap­pears with H= ch: chat, chapo, chamou, chak, cho, dachin, and machin. In English, this ‘sh’ sound has many spellings: fish, am­bi­tious, sus­pi­cious, lus­cious, cau­tion, chateau, ma­chine, and fis­sure. In Cre­ole, U al­ways ap­pears with O = ou: kou, sou, nou, fou, asou, doudou, chou­val. English, on the other hand, loves va­ri­ety: you, flute, view, knew, who, yule­tide, and cruel. In Cre­ole, A some­times ap­pears with Y = ay: kay, chay, man­may, tib­way, afalay, twavay, pay. But as usual, in English the same sound has vary­ing spellings: sigh, try, buy, lie, sur­prise, I, deny.

English has two sounds which are very sim­i­lar: bridge & fetch. In St Lu­cian, the dge­sound is al­ways writ­ten dj: fid­jay, djab, djouk, dja­bal, djèp, djéwi, djòl, ladjé, ladjè, lad­jablès and zandji. In English, what a sur­prise, this sound is writ­ten in dif­fer­ent ways: gi­ant, jin­gle, jug, grudge, dun­geon, judge, plunge, join, gigolo, Ger­man, jet, badge, and ginger. In St Lu­cian, the tch-sound is al­ways writ­ten tj: tjè, tjé, tjim, tjiwé, tjwit, tjwizin, and tjwiyè. In English this sound is writ­ten in dif­fer­ent ways: church, fetch, wretch, etc. The prob­lem is, of course, that the let­ters CH can be pro­nounced in dif­fer­ent ways: ar­chi­tect, arch­bishop, choice, chemist, chess, ma­chine, cherie and cherry.

For sev­eral years, I helped in­mates at Borde­lais on their path to lit­er­acy by teach­ing them to read and write Cre­ole, which they all spoke, be­fore go­ing on to English. I could tell you more about that, but I think I shall rest my case.

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