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Take My Word

Phonetic Spelling Is Not a Sound Idea

April 08, 1988|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

A couple of weeks ago, I got a letter from my good friend Howard Fast, who said, among other things, that while George Bernard Shaw was one of his idols, he couldn't agree with Shaw's advocacy of the phonetic, or "simplified," spelling of English.

Shaw's most famous demonstration of the absurdity of English orthography was the imaginative spelling ghoti for the word fish. That's gh as in enough , o as in women , and ti as in notion --fish. Shaw felt that any language that lent itself to such lunacy was in need of radical reform.

Howard asked if I'd ever written about that. No, I haven't; so here goes.

The idea that we could actually invent a new spelling and make it work to the benefit of the English-speaking world strikes me as crackpot in the extreme. In the first place, we must hypothesize a large group of scholars who could assemble and come to an agreement as to the conventions of the new, improved spellings. Right away, we're in deep trouble, but let's assume that these scholars can agree upon what symbols are to stand for what sounds.

How shall I write a paper on the rights of man and another on the rites of passage and another on the play wright George Bernard Shaw? Do they all become rites , rytes or ryts ? Whatever convention is chosen, the words must all be spelled the same, because they are all pronounced the same.

And whose pronunciation shall we choose? Some people pronounce all those words "rats," others "rahts," "roits" and "raits," to say nothing of the "r," which in Scotland is a burr, and in parts of New York is almost a "v."

I've been a big Dinah Shore fan since she was practically a toddler, appearing as Mademoiselle Dinah Shore and singing on NBC radio with the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. I still love the way she sings, and I love the way she speaks. In her radio commercials, when she says, "When you say jump, we say ha-ha," it thrills me through and through, and we all know that "ha-ha" is her sultry Southern way of saying "how high."

How will our panel of new spelling authorities handle a phrase like "how high"? With hush-puppies and honey, a la Mademoiselle Dinah? I've known some Upstate New Yorkers and Midwesterners who say "hayo" for "how," and I've known people from Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island who speak of their old "hoy schools": "We just had aw fifteent' hoy school veunion." You like "hayo hoy" for "how high"?

Just for fun, I've tried to give Shaw the "ghoti" treatment. How about Gie By Coa? That's Gie , as in "The Flatfoot Floo gie With a Floy Floy," By as in "Ba by , Won't you Please Come Home," C as in "How Deep Is the O c eana Roll," and oa as in "The Lullaby of Br oa dway." I'm not sure Shaw was aware of those tunes, but they were all popular during his lifetime (1856-1950). Neither am I absolutely sure that Shaw was the originator of the ghoti-fish equation. One of my high school English teachers said it was Shaw, and I've taken her word for it for the last 45 years.

Aside from the impossibility of reaching a consensus on the new spelling, if implemented, most of English literature would have to be rewritten (and re-published). And since that couldn't be done, most of that priceless treasure would be forever lost to all but a few dedicated scholars willing to devote their energies to studying the old forms of reading and writing.

Shaw was one of the towering geniuses of English literature, some of his stage directions being more insightful than entire plays by lesser playwrights. But I agree with Howard Fast; Gie By Coa was off base on this one. We're better off with natural, organic, unrestructured English spelling, ghoti-fish and all.

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