The King’s Spokane


A view of Spokane, WashingtonFRam


Flying into Spokane today, I began to wonder why the name of the city is pronounced Spo-KAN rather than Spo-KAYN.


I mean, I flew into Spokane on a “plane,” not a “plan.”


A “pram” is a pram, but a flame is a “flame.”


The Fram presumably had a “frame,” but it shouldn’t be confused with one.


A person looking wan may have begun to wane, and you can, I suppose, break a windowpane with a pan, and Al may drink a lot of ale, and, when something goes “blam!” somebody may eventually get the blame, and . . .  well, you get the idea.


“Can” becomes “cane” with the added “e.”


“Sam” is not the same as . . . well, “same.”


(Such things occupy my little mind.)


It reminded me of a well-known story about the great Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was a fervent advocate of English spelling reform.


Suppose, he said, that you were a very proficient foreign speaker of English who had, somehow, forgotten how to spell the word fish.


So you decide to sound it out.


First, you need a “fa” sound.  Like the one in cough.  So gh.


Next, you need an “ih” sound.  As in women.  Thus, gho.


To finish out the word fish, finally, you need a “shh” sound.  As in nation.


Thus, ghoti.  “Fish.”


To which some wit, somewhere, is supposed to have added yet another syllable:


Suppose, he said, you wanted to spell the word fisher.


You begin, of course, with Mr. Shaw’s ghoti.  But now you need an “err” sound.  As in colonel.


Hence, ghotiolo, or “fisher.”


Not, of course, to be confused with fissure.


Sometimes I wonder how any speaker of a foreign language is ever able to master English spelling, which is certifiably mad.  And I’m guessing, though I’ve never actually researched the matter, that, unlike their English-speaking counterparts, school kids in Germany and Latin America and the Arab world—where spelling is pretty regular and there’s no chasm between writing and pronunciation—don’t have to waste hours each week studying spelling.


Written just north of Sandpoint, Idaho, on Friday, 22 March 2013.

"This song was originally going to be the 'Jaws' theme until John Williams changed his mind at the last minute"
"Greeks apologize with huge horse"
"Is this the worst academic journal ever?"
Hebrew inscriptions? How early?
  • Garth

    Every language has a difference between phonetics and phonemics. Granted some are larger than others, but even supposed phonetic languages are in fact phonemic and have a difference between spelling and pronunciation.

    • danpeterson

      The size of the chasm is the relevant thing here.

  • Rozann

    I don’t know if Spanish speakers study spelling either as their vowels are almost absolutely consistently pronounced. English is an amazing amalgamation of many languages. I asked a French friend (such a beautiful language to listen to) what he thought of English. He liked it because he said there are so many more words to express the nuances of meanings. I thought that an interesting observation. Our daughter is a Korean linguist in the Air Force. She complains of the complicated grammar rules in that language. I suppose that here on earth there is no perfect language. We’ll have to wait until we get back home to remember and speak a pure language.