The band Phish played two concerts in Chicago this weekend. A couple of my grown children used to be Phish fans (and maybe still are), which was my point of reference when I heard the announcements on Chicago's public radio station - which was both cool and ... strange. And hearing the band's name again set up a string of associations. Bear with me!
First, the spelling of the name. Well, it's rather obvious. But I had recently seen the YouTube post "Everyday IPA" at the ChoralNet daily blog, and was still chuckling over that. And that made me think of the notion, generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw, that with the outrageous inconsistencies in English spelling, the word "fish" could be spelled ghoti.
Shaw is credited with this facetious observation, because he was an ardent advocate for the reform of English spelling. A reform which I suppose school children would welcome, as would those learning English as a second language. But without an English version of L'Academie francaise it just never can take hold. The argument - made to highlight how crazy it is to have a language with such diverse spelling options - goes like this:
gh - "f" as in laugh
o - "i" as in women
ti - "sh" as in election or initial
Of course, there are rules of pronunciation that actually rule out that the letters put in the given order would be pronounced "fish." Gh only carries the "f" sound at the end of words, for example. And yet, I suppose this is part of the point for Shaw or whomever would use ghoti to argue for spelling reform. Those may be the rules, but ... why?
OK, I can't help but think of my work, and particularly that part of the work that decides what the congregation will sing in worship. If we want to sing about "fish" - must we sing "phish" to appeal to a younger, pop-music-driven crowd? On the other hand, may our song ever be so esoteric as to hide "fish" in ghoti? What if we have both a youthful crowd, and a highly educated crowd, together? Wouldn't "fish" be best served up, in its simplest, most straight-forward, standard form?
I can certainly ask the same of preachers. Why talk "phish" in a multi-generational context? And please, don't take a detour in the arcane and tell me why "fish" is really ghoti is really - after all - fish!
I'm trying to finish up my prep work for the new choir season. We won't be singing any Phish, and I'll try to be careful that ghoti doesn't factor into the repertoire here, either. Here's to clarity: which is not simplistic, not the tried and true, and certainly not tasteless. But which we can count on being direct, honest, and beautiful.