Friday, July 9, 2010

Mistaken Origins of "Ghoti-y" Proportions

Have you ever seen the movie Akeelah and the Bee? In the movie, a moving quotation is used to inspire Akeelah that includes these sentences:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
The movie attributes this quotation to Nelson Mandela; however, Mandela never (as far as I know) spoke or wrote these words. The quotation above should instead have been attributed to Marianne Williamson.

Misattributing quotations is by no means a problem unique to Akeelah and the Bee; a similar situation occurred in 1999 when Baz Luhrman released the song "Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" that began with these words:
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '99: If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now. Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind: You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded.
The song's lyrics had been attributed to Baz Luhrman and Kurt Vonnegut (among others) before someone set people straight, pointing out that Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune had originally penned the words.

What does all this have to do with linguistics?

In linguistics, we like to tell the story of how English spelling is so discombobulated that the string of letters "ghoti" could be pronounced as 'fish': take the gh from enough, the o from women, and the ti from nation, and you've got the sounds f-i-sh from ghoti. I had first heard that this particular sentiment was taken from George Bernard Shaw, which makes sense in the grand scheme of things. He was so upset with the English spelling system that he actually created his own alphabet--the Shavian alphabet--to make our spelling more phonetic. The alphabet never caught on, but his life's work was dedicated to saving the English language from sure doom. In every class that I gave the ghoti example to, I attributed it to Shaw.

In an article tweeted by @mightyredpen, I found out I--and at least some of the linguistic community--am wrong. I have been misattributing the ghoti statement: Its real source is a letter written by Charles Ollier in 1855.

This just goes to show that no area is immune to misattribution: Hollywood, media, academia... And it also shows the importance of researching for yourself the origins of quotations before you use them from a secondhand source, causing a "ghoti-y" mess.