Okay. This is probably going to turn into a rant, so if you think ‘ghoti ‘ is the best thing ever and you can’t stand to see it criticised, leave now. Come back next week when I post something less inflammatory 🙂
If you haven’t heard of ‘ghoti’ before, it’s basically made up way of spelling ‘fish’, used to apparently test people’s intelligence. Generally, someone shows this to someone else and asks if they know what it spells, generally accompanied by a knowing laugh.
This usually results in A) the victim’s — I mean, recipient’s — fist making high-velocity impact with the asker’s nose, B) the recipient spontaneously bursting into hysterical sobbing, or C) the recipient answering correctly. There are three kinds of people in the world; which one are you? 😛
= gh + o + ti
= f (e.g. ‘rough‘) + i (e.g. ‘women’) + sh (e.g. condition)
The problem I have with this is that it implies that those who don’t understand it or can’t work it out are stupid, ignorant, or, worse, apathetic. Uh, no. Turning ‘ghoti’ into ‘fish’ relies on a naïve view of the English language. What fanatics don’t realise is there are extra, implicit rules that govern our pronunciation. And this is why Watson is pronounced ‘wot-son’, not ‘what’s on’.
- ‘gh’ only sounds like ‘f’ at the end of a root word, never at the beginning
- ‘ti’ only sounds like ‘sh’ when followed by ‘o’
There are, of course, exceptions. One of the most famous of these would have to be the name ‘Cholmondeley’. The temptation is to pronounce it ‘Choll-mon-deh-lay’. Resist it! It’s ‘Chum-lee’, presumably because no-one in old England could be bothered with such a long-winded name.
And then you have foreign names: in German, ‘sch’ is pronounced ‘sh’, while in Dutch, it’s pronounced ‘sk’ – this carries over to English, where we have ‘Übermensch’, ‘schedule’ and ‘school’. Similar things happen with ‘w’ in English, which is replaced by ‘v’ in many other languages, and the ‘a’ in many Asian names. In English, you often hear this pronounced as the ‘a’ in ‘apple’ or ‘bank’, but a more correct pronunciation would be the ‘a’ in ‘lark’ or ‘celladoore’ 😉
So next time someone tries to use such a false intelligence test on you, link them to this blog 🙂 Or just, you know, take option A. Whatever’s easiest.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s talk about languages, and in particular, accents.
We’ve already seen that the same letters can be pronounced differently in different languages. So how does this lead to different accents when someone learns to speak a second language?
A good example of this is the letters ‘l’ and ‘r’, or ‘b’ and ‘p’ in English, which are replaced with an amalgamation of the two in many Asiatic languages. Although, as babies, we can all understand and have the capacity to make all of these different sounds, through use and disuse we ‘forget’ how to make certain sounds, and when we try to make new sounds later, it’s very difficult.
Obviously, with practice, a Frenchman can learn to speak with a strong American accent and so on, but that’s the point. It takes practice to learn to pronounce this particular letter here like that, but when it’s there to pronounce it like this. I myself experienced this when trying to say goodbye to a Slovakian. Apparently, despite my best efforts to mimic the recording I’d used to learn off, there were some sounds I just wasn’t getting completely correct.
An example is the mispronunciation of Mandarin words by English speakers. The word ‘zhang’ in Mandarin is pronounced something like ‘jung’ (rhyming with ‘sung’), but it is common to hear it pronounced as ‘zang’ (rhyming with ‘sang’) by inexperienced English speakers reading the pinyin. It’s not that the English speakers are stupid, ignorant or apathetic (well, at least not all the time). It’s because their brains are hard-wired to see ‘zh’ and treat the ‘h’ as silent, and to see ‘a’ and pronounce it as ‘a’, as in ‘sang’.
All it takes to correct these kinds of errors is practice. Obviously, the younger and more plastic your brain is, the easier it is to learn. But this also works in reverse. Learning a language that has very little in common with your first language can have profound effects on the youthfulness of your brain, staving off things like dementia (and boredom).
When they say learning a language expands your mind (metaphorically), they aren’t lying. What’s more, language isn’t the only way to maintain your brain’s plasticity. Similar effects can be gained by learning in other fields you’ve never experienced before.
However, the most important thing when deciding to learn something new is that you have to enjoy whatever it is that you’re learning. So, yes, if you’ve always secretly harboured a delight in advanced theory in mathematics, go for it; if mathematics disgusts you somehow, then don’t.
In the end, as much as your brain governs you and how you pronounce and interpret things, you can govern your brain too.
Featured image based on “Trout Fish Animal Biology Ichthyology Zoology” by OpenClips, CC0 1.0