This was originally published in my work Slack on 2016-10-19, but I’ve since been convinced that more people than just those few who can even read it there might be interested. I’ve edited it for clarity and correctness. I’m going to migrate all my Linguistics Minutes over to my blog and probably post future ones here.

This one’s more fun than factual, but 🤷🏻‍♂️.

Look at this collection of characters: “ghoti”. Based on your understanding of English spelling how do you expect that’s pronounced?

The “correct” answer (scare quotes because this is a joke) is that it’s pronounced the same as fish. It’s to illustrate some of the ways that English spells certain sounds that we don’t often think of.

Let’s break it down a bit. It’s the “gh” as in enough (IPA /f/), the “o” as in women (IPA /ɪ/) and the “ti” as in fiction (IPA /ʃ/). First, this just shows that we don’t often think of /f/ as being spelled “gh”, like, ever. Nor do we think about /ʃ/ being spelled “ti”. It also shows how context-dependent certain things are.

You probably intuit that you can’t start an English word with “ng” (IPA /ŋ/). There are a lot of sounds in English that are only allowed in certain placements or next to certain other sounds. But our spelling is similar in that certain letter combinations only signify certain sounds when surrounded by other letters.

For instance, that “gh” only sounds like /f/ when it follows “ou” (with maybe a few exceptions?) and that “ti” only sounds like /ʃ/ when followed by “on” or “al”. So in the context presented by “ghoti” it’s absurd to assert it would be pronounced /fɪʃ/. But, you know, a lot about English spelling is absurd, so…