Year in and year out, like the appearance of insects in the spring, someone circulates a clever email message lamenting the confusing complexity of English spelling. A long time ago, some wag concocted the word “ghoti,” that is, “fish,” which was composed of the /f/ sound of “gh” in “tough,” the /i/ sound of “o” in “women,” and the /sh/ sound of “ti” in any “tion” word. English spelling is so whacky. Let’s fix it!
How wrong-headed that complaint is.
The English language is the world’s greatest multicultural project. Any word can come from anywhere else and stay at any of five main English residences: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and interjections. (For structural reasons, the smaller English enclaves of pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions are highly restricted—nobody’s been in or out in a long looooong time.)
If you’re a foreign word, you are free to come in—no immigration controls, no quotas, no visa restrictions. There are only a few rules: If you dress in a non-Latin alphabet, you’ll have to change into Latin clothes; if you walk across the page from right to left, well, you’ll have to do it the other way ’round; if you like to make odd sounds that aren’t among the 45 or so English phonemes, then the natives will find some for you that sound almost the same.
English will also let you keep the letters that make you what you are (i.e., foreign) in your own original order—that’s right, you can keep your own spelling! At first, you’ll be walking stooped over, in what is called the “italic” mode. But after a while, that’ll wear off and you can walk upright. Eventually you’ll even forget to wear all those strange diacritical marks, too. Think of that: You can keep your foreign appearance because ultimately, English speakers aren’t really worried about the wildly inconsistent spelling in English, which is caused mostly because foreign words aren’t forced to change to follow basic English practices.
But foreign words do have to agree to accept a few things, mainly English plurals (that applies to you, nouns and verbs), possessives, and English syntax and grammar. (English sometimes allows a bit of leeway on that, like the French habit of putting the adjective after the noun. It’s not like English imposes a date certain by which a foreign word has to follow all the rules, you know.)
So whenever you feel the onrush of a public outcry to bemoan that wacky English spelling, just remember that English is the greatest multicultural experiment around.