Tag Archives: spelling

Angling for Ghoti

In English we have some pretty odd spelling-to-sound correspondences, one of which is “GH” (see more here: http://www.howtospell.co.uk/gh-words). Just how far the sound can stray from spelling is illustrated with the neologism “ghoti” – pronounced like “fish” because GH can represent /f/ as in “tough,” O can represent /ɪ/ as in “women” and TI is frequently pronounced /ʃ/ as in “action” (more on ghoti and its friend ghoughpteighbteau – pronounced “potato” – here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoti).

Intriguingly, many of these GH-words are cognates with German where the GH corresponds to CH:

das Recht – “right”
das Lachen – “laugh”
durch – “through”
tochter – “daughter”
acht – “eight”

As German has much more regular spelling-to-sound correspondences, there are two main options for the pronunciation of CH, namely /ç/ as in durch /dʊrç/ and /x/ as in acht [axt] (this latter spelling-sound pattern appears for some speakers of English in the Scots Gaelic word “loch”). The third possibility is to pronounce CH as /ks/ as in Achse /aksə/ which corresponds generally to the spelling X in English – die Achse is “axel” or “axis.” (Note that when there is a morphological boundary between S and CH, for example in am reichstenreich-sten “richest,” the /ks/ pronunciation is not used.)

There are some loan words in German where the pronunciation of CH does not follow one of these three patterns. For example, there are numerous streets in Hamburg that are called Etwas+Chausee /ʃɔˈse:/. Following the “ghoti” example, perhaps this could be spelled *Tiausee?!

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Is that an S I hear?

In English we tend to form our plurals with “s,” which sounds simple but needs a bit of explaining because while the letter “s” may appear, its pronunciation is governed by the final sound in the word.

We add an “s” and say plain old “s” /s/ when the word ends in the unvoiced (you don’t feel a vibration if you touch your throat while you say them) sounds /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/ and the /th/ in “path.”

We add “s” but say it like “z” /z/ with the voiced (check your throat, you should feel vibrations) sounds /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/,  /l/, /m/, /n/, /ng/, /r/ or a vowel sound. (It would also apply to the /th/ in “writhe,” however I was unable to find a noun with this final sound as there is another phonological pattern in English where the noun forms of related words end in the unvoiced /th/ – “bath” and the verb forms end in a voiced /th/ – “bathe.”)

Finally, if the word ends in a sibilant  /s/, /z/ /ʃ/ as in “wish,” /tʃ/ as in “pitch,” /dʒ/ as in “ridge” or /ʒ/ as in “mirage,” we add an “es” and say either /iz/ or /uz/.

One way to test these rules for yourself is to make up non-words that end with sounds of each of the three types, and then create plurals. Try it with “•geck,” “•gring” and “•gitch.” You should find, in line with Jean Berko, that your pronunciations vary even though you’ve never had to form these plurals before.

As I learned to speak English before I could read or spell, the challenge was to associate multiple sounds with a single letter – “s.” Because I only began learning German as a literate adult, I can be confused by spelling patterns that map onto multiple sounds as the plural “s” does in English. At least I can take comfort that I not alone in this. Here is a small portion of a party invitation that one 7 year old boy sent to another:

Sak mir ob du kome konnst which I think is a rough sound-based rendering of Sag mir ob du kommen kannst “Tell me if you can come”

I hope after reading this you will say that you can come and enjoy the party here on Earthquake Words. Unfortunately, however, the blog will be on a short hiatus as I travel to Poland and will be “unplugged” for a week or so. I look forward to sharing more with you after my trip – tschüss and “bye for now.”


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