Not a Ghoti

I keep a notebook of all random work-related thoughts, notes, etc: a daybook for keeping on track. I noticed, just tonight that the first page, like every other page so far, only has work-related notes on it

I was 14 when I discovered that language was a lie. I’m pretty sure that it was the Monday night of the May 2-4 Weekend (or Victoria day for all of you not from Ontario). I’d been reading through this massive pulp book I had called something like ‘the book of AMAZING facts’ (The Amazing, or Incredible, or somesuch similar descriptor was angled, superman-comic like across the top of the book, the other letters smaller. The book itself was a sort of blue-ish-grey, with cartoony pictures detailing some of the wonders held inside ) when I came across an entry that informed that should I wish to, I could spell ‘fish’ ‘ghoti’. How is that possible you may ask? Well, take the ‘gh’ from ‘enough’, the ‘o’ from ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ from ‘action’, and blammo, you’ve got yourself a ghoti!

I may have been high at the time (actually, the chances I wasn’t are probably slimmer than the chances that I was), but this spiralled into realizing the abstraction of language: these groupings of sounds that we’ve agreed to assign meanings don’t, in and of their own, have any meaning. It’s why I don’t understand foreign languages — I didn’t get in on the compact to use those groupings. So words were these lies all of a sudden. The written word was even worse. We’d abstracted the abstraction of the spoken sound into these visual symbols, and assigned meaning and value to those. Worse yet, without the visual & tonal emotive cues, how we could we know the intention of the ‘speaker’? It wasn’t until university that I learn some linguistics and language theory; at the time, this cascaded me into depression. Everything, suddenly, was suspect, and vastly complicated. I attempted to analyse, to codify, the process by which I translated intention to sound, to words, to meaning, to comprehension. This spiralled into hopelessly complex machinations of a brain I didn’t understand. I’m pretty sure I didn’t show up for school the next day, either. It was too much for me.

For the next week, I walked around mouthing words, wondering & fearful at the sounds that it made. I made lists of pleasing words, based entirely on their sound (and accompanying gestures my tongue would have to make), removed from meaning. I’d also spell words based on stealing phonetic groupings from other words. Somewhere, there’s even a sonnet (I was seriously into sonnets) written entirely like this. I’d imagine that it’s completely incomprehensible. This got me into thinking about how ‘yellow’ is only such because it’s been named so. Ever seen those shirts that list colors, but each word is in a different color? Like ‘yellow’ would be in red, ‘red’ in blue, etc. Reading the words is fairly easy. Then try reading the colors, ignoring the words: it’s much, much harder.

It was this train of thought I think eventually led me to realize the abstraction of my own body parts from myself, and cutting my own hand in fascination, and into a fatalistic, teenage proto-existentialism (that in retrospect, wasn’t much more than a teenage-angst-fuelled depression), before I’d ever read la nausée. I probably didn’t really emerge until I got clean and happy, in my final year of high-school. Myriad reasons contributed to my particular experience of teenage angst, of course, but I think this started it. And on the first page of every notebook I’ve had since, it has always said in plain, block letters to fill the page, ‘not a ghoti’, as a reminder that language is a construct, and that I am indeed, human: a combination of body & thought.