Casting a spell on English (continued)

Posted by on October 22, 2009

© Pat Lalli / Fotolia.comThere’s an old chestnut about the pronunciation of the word GHOTI. It’s pronounced, obviously enough, /fɪʃ/. The GH is /f/ as in cough; the O is /ɪ/ as in women; and the TI is /ʃ/ as in motion.

Not true, of course (it’s a made up word and you can read about it on Wikipedia), but it makes the point that English spelling can be a minefield, not only for all those people around the world learning English or using English as a lingua franca, but also for people whose first language is English.

I’ve spent some time looking at the words people have tried to look up in the Online Dictionary, and very interesting it is, too. For a while, it looked as though Dan Quayle had dropped in to look up potatoe, but it turns out that none of the seekers after this mythical tuber was from the US. Romanians, for some reason, seem to be leading the hunt.

The other week, I mentioned concensus as an example of a word that people misspell, presumably by analogy with another word. People have also looked up supercede, and quite understandably, given that we have accede, concede, intercede, precede, recede and secede. But supersede is unique in the language, being the only word in current English to end in the letters –sede.

At the start of a word, ex is often followed by c (excise, exceed, excel, excess), which probably explains why so many people have looked up excercise, not realising it’s an exceptionally exciting exception. And I rather liked metaphore. A sort of literary semaphore.

One of the things that must annoy people is the way spelling can change when suffixes are added. Several people have been curious about the word curiousity, and have been redirected to the word curiosity. Maybe they’re the same people who looked up pronounciation (redirected to pronunciation). And if ten plus four is fourteen, why on earth isn’t ten times four fourty (redirected to forty)? You’re entitled to demand an explaination (but you’ll be redirected to explanation).

Read Cast a spell on English (part 3).

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Comments (2)
  • This is a great entry. It has shades of Safire, in the self-conscious string of similar words or ideas, which always means more than its parts.

    -Keith

    Posted by Keith T. on 22nd October, 2009
  • I really enjoyed reading the article. I am really thankful for these kinds of materials as I am an English teacher and desperately need them. I have my personal site http://www.allasobirova.com where I try to collect the materials and comments about ELT and reading.

    Posted by AllaSobirova on 23rd October, 2009
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