1 Mar 2012

Playing with English

Image from here

Given her struggles with spelling, word play games on the English language are not Jemimah's idea of a fun way of whiling away a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Her daddy and I, on the other hand, gain a great deal of pleasure in playing with, and discussing, words and language. The amusing quirks, absurdities and oddities of our own English language and its pronunciation and spelling will never cease to amuse us. Yes, yes, I know: small minds, and all that.

My niece, the beautiful 13 year old Princess Mini-me, is wired the same way as I am, hence her blog name. Our families often joke that she is really my daughter, whilst Jemimah, who is my sister's clone, belongs with them. Princess Mini-me acts like me, looks like me, is wonderful like me. Jemimah, on the other hand...well, she is wonderful too, and I wouldn't swap her for the world. But if I did, it would be for Mini-me. I digress. (How often I type those words on this blog).

One Sunday afternoon recently, Mini-me was a hanging with the adults, as befits a 13 yo first child. Ahem. Anyhow, the talk turned to language as it often does, and I realised that the Princess didn't know how to pronounce ghoti. What a failure in her education - she needed to be enlightened immediately!

Being a diligent and obsessively competitive child, she approached the task with determination and will, and finally managed, with much help, to pronounce the word as we all know it should be said, not a goatee like the beard, but ghoti as in fish.

Of course, Jemimah with her keen homeschooler's knowledge of spelling rules would have known, had she bothered to hang around the adults - which she didn't, that it is only gh at the end of a word that says 'f', and ti at the end of a word never says 'sh', but that would ruin the fun, and anyhow, we know for sure that spelling rules are only made to be broken.

Although he didn't mention ghoti, the Dutch teacher,Gerard Nolst Trenité, recognised this absurdity of English spelling when he wrote his wonderful poem, The Chaos, back in the 1920s. The poem contains about 800 examples of irregular pronunciation written in mostly clever rhyming couplets, and is most sublime fun to read aloud.

Here is the beginning:
Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear;
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter, how it's written!)
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via;
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven; how and low;
Script, receipt; shoe, poem, toe.
If you're after the rest of the poem, which I'm sure you will be, you'll find it here. Such excellent word fun, it is.

I tried reading The Chaos aloud to my audience, but even my Beloved tired of listening after the first six or seven verses.

Princess Mini-me had left the erudite company of grown-ups by then.

Shame, really - she wouldn't have let me down.


  1. Great post Jeanne, very interesting! I actually did follow the link to the Spelling Society and have been there for the last 40 minutes reading some spelling history and just more info about the our most difficult language! xxx

  2. Get her a phone. Get the "words with friends" AP and she'll soon get over her hatred of word games!

  3. I love it! Word challenges are so fun. I read the part you posted out loud with almost no problem, but got a bit hung up on "bade". Here's where I humble myself and admit that I have always pronounced that like "made". Ha! I even looked it up thinking that it might be a difference in British/American pronunciation, only to find that the man on dictionary.com pronounced it "bad" with a distinctly American accent. Who knew? Not me, obviously!

    Now I'm off to look at the rest...

  4. I have watched a couple of excellent documentaries about the English language and find it fascinating. But I am hopeless with word games and I always seem to loose.

    Enjoying your blog - please don't stop!!

  5. i still don't know how to pronounce ghoti... and yes, i read your whole post. :)

    but i do recognize that poem as we enjoyed it with some friends recently. so. much. fun. :)

    ps. i like your digressions just as much as the regular subject of the posts ;)

  6. I love word games but my vocabulary isn't huge. The best thing about playing scrabble with my husband is that he plays all these obscure words which I challenge - and of course he's right and they *are* real words. Last night we had larch, berm and spline - I'm sure you know them but they were new to me!

  7. Thank you, Amy! I thought perhaps I was the only one that couldn't figure it out. I'm about to look it up on dictionary.com and then have it pronounce it for me. I did know the other rules (although I honestly couldn't tell you the rules, I just 'know' them- ahem..)
    I've been away from the bloggy world too long it seems. I must see your past posts! Where have I been lately?

  8. Hi Jeanne! I've seen the "ghoti" for fish before. Funny! I just submitted an article on spelling to a home ed magazine, and the sidebar touches on why English is tricky to spell. :-)

  9. :)
    Please I say please please please please.....do not stop blogging:)
    I just read ruby's post and came right over.
    Sorry I am not very active on fb and consequently have not friended you there and didn't realize you were feeling down about your blog. I always talk about you to my real life friends as you are my hs hero and mentor:)
    I sometimes go for days without visiting as life gets busy juggling work ministry homeschooling etc.
    I apologize for not commenting and visiting much of late.

  10. I love this post but must confess that I still don't know what you are talking about! lol

    Logan hates word games too. Sees no point in them and it is terrible to try to get him to do it.

    Michael and I on the other hand love a fun competitive game of Words with Friends by phone!

  11. Dear Jeanne!
    How are you?
    Your blog has gone way down to the bottom on my blog reading list, (meaning you have not posted in a while) and that is not right:( is everything ok with you?
    much love to you


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