Of photi, wimen, and gheese

Photi 2pngOr on the weirdness of English spellings, and how some got that way…

Everyone of us who has struggled learning how to spell in English has at some point thrown up our hands (and pens, pencils and keyboards) in pure frustration. English spellings defy rules. Yes, there are some rules, and just when you think you understand, in come the exceptions. But let’s not despair; the exceptions have some fascinating and interesting stories.

First, photi is not a word (at least not yet, not to my knowledge). It may appear to look like a technical word related to cameras or other devices for recording images … photograph, photographer, photos. You might think that it could be an archaic Latin spelling of photos, you know, like cactus and cacti. But no, it isn’t and doesn’t really fit the pattern of Latin plurals. In fact the “photo-” combining form is actually a Greek thing.

Many students of linguistics encounter photi for the first time when some professor attempts a joke to illustrate the vagaries, or quirks, of English pronunciation. So how do you pronounce photi? Before I explain, there is a hint at the bottom of this blog; see the blue images.

Now, as the story goes, English letters can have numerous pronunciations. Here photi draws on the fact the ph can be pronounced as f (but note, not in uphill, uphold, upholster, peephole, and ironically, loophole.) Next is the letter o as pronounced i in the word women. Finally there is the ti pronounced as sh as in action, position, friction, faction. For that matter, we could have spelled our word fish as phosi as in mansion, permission or vision or phoci as in vicious, deficient or efficient, (which I dare say it is not). So we are left with ph=f, o=i and ti=sh, which then are pronounced as “fish”.

There has been an ongoing movement to simplify English spellings, in fact, there is a group dedicated to reforming English spelling. The Simplified Spelling Society (SSS, no personal comment here) is about 100 years old and included Theodore Roosevelt as a member. The society cites the enormous costs involved in problems associated with poor spelling because of the lack of consistency in English, and they may well have some very good arguments. A reform in English is long overdue. One suggestion is that spelling should follow pronunciation; but whose pronunciation? Aren’t we again opening another classic can of nematodes (that is, worms, but I do so try to avoid too many clichés.) If we were to follow the pronunciation of the majority of English speakers, we would then spell women as wimen. Or why not we(e)man. Ouch, a potential political hot spud. The Old English spelling was wifmon, which was the word for wife.

And what then of ghost where English kept the gh- spelling introduced by the Flemish typesetters that William Caxton had engaged in the 15th century with the first printing press in England. But this spelling was not kept in ghoose and gheese where we dropped the gh- preferring the simpler goose and geese.

There is much to be said for the literal and figurative economy of reform. But there is also much to be considered of the history, politics and art of the English language and how it has evolved over the last thousand years.

By the way, is the plural fish or fishes … another topic to be returned to soon.

Blue FishBlue FishBlue Fish

3 thoughts on “Of photi, wimen, and gheese

  1. To be fair, TI only makes the /sh/ sound when followed by a vowel. So maybe “fishes” as photias. Also, while PH as /f/ is common, O as /i/ occurs in a single word, women, try: phettias. Finally, to the more common “ghoti” spelling: it is actually the U in “rough”, “laugh”, and “cough” which creates the frictive /f/ sound, not the GH, which is silent yet ensures that the U is unvoiced and not a /v/ sound. So: Ughettias as “fishes”.

    Another interesting note, the T in words like “action” is actually silent. I makes the /y/ sound before another vowel in the same syllable (see: onion, champion, etc.) but this consonant sound shifts to a /sh/ or /zh/ when following a dental (T, C, S, Z, D, and of course other combos that already include the /sh/ sound: SH, J, etc.). The T is silent or, more accurately, uncompleted (as in the word “button”) when it appears before an N-ending syllable. You see, N is also a dental and the tongue therefore does not have to move from the T to reach the N, leaving the T incomplete by the time it gets there.


  2. One purpose in starting this blog was to find other people who are interested in English and linguistics; I appreciate the intelligent and insightful comments.

    In fact the photi or ghoti examples are just teasers actually, as you point out with the limited incidence of /o/ pronunciation as /i/ in women. I think it was just a way for professors to get our attention and show how far apart English orthography and pronunciation can actually be. For me as a young linguistics student starting out decades ago, I appreciated some levity in an otherwise potentially dry topic (not for me, of course!)

    I’m not sure where you are from, but the /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, etc., are normally alveolars in American English, although I did pronounce them dentally after I returned from living in Mexico and speaking Spanish exclusively. It took me two weeks to reposition my tongue from apicodental to apicoalveolar. And in the US the medial consonant in button is often pronounced as a glottal stop /ʔ/ (so prevalent in Arabic), but not in UK English where, at least in RP, it is more of a fully fledged /t/. By contrast to button (at least in my dialect), butter is an intervocalic alveolar flap.

    Originally my dissertation was to be a phonological/phonetic topic. Unfortunately my intended chair for the topic moved to a different university and I had to change to a sociolinguistic topic, albeit bringing in a phonetic component.

    I hope you will continue to discuss, raise questions, present more insight, etc. Maybe we can get a forum going with others who are interested in the subject. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about points close to my heart.


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