How to Spell Fish

Teaching English in another country may have its challenges, but in my experience having dull students was never one of them. My bright and eager Bulgarian kids at Bertolt Brecht Language High School kept me on my toes. Navigating the intricacies of English spelling and pronunciation, on the other hand, was definitely a challenge.

One day I was stepping carefully with them through the minefield of gh words (though and through, tough and trough, eight and weigh… and foghorn? HiccoughAaugh!) Then I remembered the creative spelling someone made up for a common word, ghoti. Perhaps you’ve seen it; I don’t know who originated it. (Fish. Hmm. G-h-o-t-i, fish. Where did I first hear that?) At the end of class I wrote the word on the blackboard as the students got up to leave, and said we would go over it the next day. Some were reaching for their pocket dictionaries as they left, and there were lots of puzzled looks. Tomorrow. See you then.

GhotiThat night while going over my lesson plan, I decided that playing around with that strange word would make a good warmup to start the next day’s lesson. (The standard lesson plan taught in Peace Corps training starts with a 3 to 5 minute game, activity or puzzle to settle the kids down and focus their attention in the room.) One thought led to another and I put ghoti into a little poem.

How to Spell Fish

A G and an H make F (while sounding rough and tough to you)
And the O in women sounds like slim and trim (I know they do)
Then you have a TI saying s-h-h-h (the tuition bill is due)
So a G-H-O-T-I might taste like trout or perch it’s true.

If G-H-O-T-I can make a word that sounds like fish
I still don’t think I’d eat one if it jumped into my dish.
So next time when I’m looking for a better fish to fry
I think I’ll pass right by the one marked G-H-O-T-I.

I expect by now most of my former students have the gh words mastered, and the ie and ei ones as well, and all the other oddities of our funny language. After all, they’re making their way in the world as translators, teachers, doctors and lawyers, journalists and international marketers, professionals of all kinds. I wonder if some might remember that strange word when they stop in at a fish market, and think back on the simple joy of learning.

“Fish. Hmm. G-h-o-t-i, fish. Where did I first hear that?”


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