Today is the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw. He was born in Dublin in 1856 and began his writing career as a journalist and theater critic in London. Eventually he began writing plays of his own, his most famous being Pygmalion (1912) — the play upon which the musical My Fair Lady is based. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (1).
In addition to writing plays, Shaw was active in political causes, most notably socialism, vegetarianism, and spelling reform.
To illustrate the troubled state of English spelling, Shaw gave a famous example by fabricating a word spelled G-H-O-T-I. He said it was a new way to spell the word fish and was perfectly logical based on the spelling in existing English words:
-The gh in Ghoti was the f sound in enough.
-The o was from the i sound in women.
-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.
Clearly, argued Shaw, the spelling of words in the English alphabet had little logical relationship with the sounds of words. It’s little wonder we have problems with spelling since we have an alphabet of twenty-six letters and a language with more than 40 sounds. On top of that there are over 300 different ways to spell those forty-plus sounds.
Shaw’s passion for the spelling reform cause is reflected in the tone of his writing in a preface to a book by R.A. Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language in 1941:
Professor Wilson has shewn that it was as a reading and writing animal that Man achieved his human eminence above those who are called beasts. Well, it is I and my like who have to do the writing. I have done it professionally for the last sixty years as well as it can be done with a hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell “debt,” and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a “b” because Julius Caesar spelt the Latin for it with a “b” . . . .
If the introduction of an English alphabet for the English language costs a civil war, or even, as the introduction of summer time did, a world war, I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing. That must be remedied, come what may.
Shaw, like many others before and after him, failed to reform English spelling (Shaw died in 1950). The fight for spelling reform, however, goes on even today as seen in a headline from a 2006 Associated Press article: Puush for Simpler Speling Perzists — despiet th lak of public intrest (2).
Today’s Challenge: The Spelling List From Hell
What are examples of words in English that are difficult to spell because their pronunciation has very little correlation with their spelling? On this 26th day of the month, create an abecedarian list of words from A-Z that are extremely difficult to spell. To check how challenging the words on your list are, write each word phonetically and compare that to the word’s actual spelling. For example, notice how words like psychology, chaos, colonel, and tsunami are spelled quite differently from the way they are pronounced.
Quote of the Day: You must remember that it is permissible for spelling to drive you crazy. Spelling had this effect on Andrew Jackson, who once blew his stack while trying to write a Presidential paper. “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!” the President cried. -John Irving