exit ghoti

I once recommended George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman to a libertarian comrade who then said, "Wasn’t he a socialist?"

Shaw’s socialism wasn’t as harmless as some shavians would want us to believe, but neither do I think it was coincidence that this brilliant playwright was friends with such antisocialists (in the shavian state-socialist sense) as G.K. Chesterton and Benjamin Tucker.

Also, when most intellectuals 100 years ago were somewhere on the spectrum from pink to red, we can’t be too surprised when the cleverest stuff came from the pens of the revolutionary Left — or, in Shaw’s case, the evolutionary Left.

Shaw hated the quirks of English spelling. True to the central-planning spirit (the version of "rationalism" that F.A. Hayek decried and sometimes mistakenly applied to his allies), Shaw wanted English spelling revised to be simple, straightforward, and logical.

To illustrate how much current spelling was the opposite of these three virtues, Shaw offered the following spelling of "fish":


If you don’t think that looks like an English spelling of something pronounced fish, then you’re not alone. But Shaw pointed out that combining the gh of "tough" with the o of "women" and the ti of "nation" produced the exact phonemes needed for "fish."

(I just double-checked Wikipedia, and apparently Shaw didn’t originate this suggested spelling; he just popularized it.)

This is not a non sequitur:

I’m listening to The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch. So far it’s reminding me of my favorite stuff by Simon Winchester.

The Buried Book relays this amusing ghoti-like mistake in the rediscovery of ancient Mesopotamian mythology:

[A] major complication in the process … was that cuneiform had originally been developed in southern Mesopotamia by people who spoke Sumerian, an ancient language completely unrelated to any other known language. The script had then been taken over by speakers of Akkadian, which became the most commonly written language for much of Mesopotamian history. Yet the Akkadian scribes continued to learn Sumerian as they mastered the script, and they often employed Sumerian loan words amid their Akkadian texts. It is as though, in reading an English text we would often have to pause and determine whether pain meant ‘suffering,’ as in English, or ‘bread,’ as in French.

Conversely, a sign might have the same meaning in Akkadian as in Sumerian but a completely different sound: when used to mean ‘sky,’ the star symbol is pronounced an in Sumerian, but shamu in Akkadian. Names in particular could be tricky, for Assyrian names often included Sumerian elements, along with Akkadian symbols. This would lead George Smith [a self-taught linguist responsible for the first translation of Gilgamesh], for example, to misread the name Gilgamesh as ‘Izdubar’; he didn’t realize that what looked like two Akkadian characters, iz and du, were actually Sumerian signs pronounced ‘giz-ga’ or ‘gil-ga.’ He then guessed incorrectly on the final syllable, which was Akkadian as he assumed, but which can be pronounced either ‘bar’ or ‘mesh.’ … The reading of ‘Gilgamesh’ was finally established twenty-five years later by Smith’s friend and successor Theophilus G. Pinches, in an article triumphantly entitled "EXIT GISTUBAR!"

(Transcription stolen from “Dare I read?”)


One Response to exit ghoti

  1. Glenn I says:

    I thought Winchester’s book on the OED was a magazine article that bluffed its way between hardcovers. There was a lot of stuff in The Buried Book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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