When we first learn to read, we are taught to pronounce words by "sounding out" their letters. This strategy works fairly well since most letters correspond to phonemes, and where they do not, many exceptions are easy to learn. However, Dmitri Borgmann compiled a list of words containing an Invisible Alphabet in "Beyond Language" (Scribner's, 1967, p. 250). His list contains one word for each letter in the alphabet, where each word contains the phoneme usually associated with its letter -- but the letter itself is not in the word. We call such letters "ghost letters."

A list of words for each letter in the alphabet makes sense if each letter represents one phoneme, but this is the very assumption Dmitri is having fun with. Below is a similar list, which instead contains words for each phoneme -- but the letter or letters that are usually pronounced as the phoneme are missing. We will call such missing letters "ghost phonemes."

My choice of phonemes is entirely subjective, but I have been guided somewhat by the International Phonetic Alphabet. In compiling the list I preferred words in which no letter represents the phoneme (e.g., BURGH /bu-ro/, MBIRA /em-bir-a/), words that are common, and words not recently borrowed from a foreign language (if the word was recently borrowed, the language of origin is bracketed, except French). I do not consider proper names or acronyms (e.g., POW for a word containing the sound of L but not the letter L). I do allow mispronunciations that have become common enough to be listed in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary without a substandard or dialect label (e.g., I do allow GOVERNMENT with the V pronounced like a B, but I do not allow OPERA pronounced like OPRY). Finally, I do not list words where it makes more sense to consider a letter as silent than it does to consider it as being pronounced unusually, e.g., PSALM.

Many people have seen the spelling GHOTI for FISH (GH sounded like F in LAUGH, O sounded like I in WOMEN, TI sounded like SH in NATION). From the list below we also have the spelling WAS for FISH (W sounded like F in TAW, A sounded like I in AGATE, S sounded like SH in SURE). What does CLOMP spell? (Answer at end of article).

Phoneme Normal Example Ghost Example

Spelling Spelling

------- ------- ------- ------- ------- schwa various CHASM

\a\ A ADD E THRESH

EI CEINTURE ER CHERT I MERINGUE UI GUIMPE

\a_\ A APE OI QUOIT

EI LEI EE GEEST [German? ER FOYER OE ROEMER [German? EY PREY UI UITLANDER [Afrikaans?

\a.\ A AH I LINGERIE

E ENTREE U FURTHEST O COT

\b\ B BABY P MUNICIPAL

V GOVERNMENT

\ch\ CH CHIN SE RINSE

SI TENSION SH WELSH TE RIGHTEOUS TH POSTHUMOUS TI QUESTION CK KOLACKY [Czech? T NATURE CZ CZARDAS [Hungarian?

KY KYAT [Burmese? TT AFFETTUOSO [Italian?

\d\ D DO T TAO [Chinese?

T PARTNER TT BUTTINSKY Z INTERMEZZO [Italian?

\e\ E ELF - MBIRA [Bantu?

A ANY I DOMINICK U BURY AOI TAOISEACH [Irish?

\e_\ E EAT A BOLOGNA

I SKI AY QUAY Y PRETTY OIS CHAMOIS

J FJORD AGH SHILLELAGH [Irish?

\f\ F FAN V LEV [Bulgarian?

PH PHASE W TAW [Hebrew? GH LAUGH

\g\ G GO C ECZEMA

X EXAM K KIP [Lao?

\h\ H HAT - THRESHOLD

WH WHO G GILA MONSTER [Spanish?

J JUNTA [Spanish? X QUIXOTE [Spanish?

\hw\ WH WHO JU MARIJUANA [Spanish?

HU AYAHUASCA [Spanish?

\i\ I IS A AGATE

E AGED O WOMEN U BUSY Y GYM

\i_\ AI AISLE AE BRACCAE

AY AYE EI HEIST EY EYE I ICE UY BUY Y SLY

\j\ J JOB CH OSTRICH

G GEM SI TRANSIENT D PROCEDURE

\k\ K KID G LENGTH

C CAB GH LOUGH [Irish? Q QUEUE X FIX

\kh\ GH AUGHT H HAZAN [Hebrew?

CH OCH TH CLARSETH [Scottish?

X XAT [Haida?

\l\ L LOW - KU KLUX KLAN

\m\ M ME ND GRANDPA, SANDWICH

N BOYSENBERRY, DAVENPORT

\n\ N NO MP COMPTROLLER

M MUSHROOM

\o\ O OFF U CRITERIUM

A ALL AU HAUL OU FOUR

\o_\ O OPEN - BURGH

EAU EAU A QUAHOG [Narraganset? EW SEW AU HAUT

\oe\ EU BLEU OE OEILLADE

\oi\ OI OIL AW LAWYER

OY BOY AU FRAULEIN [German?

EU KREUZER [German?

\ou\ OU OUT O COMPT

OW NOW AU KRAUT

\p\ P PORT - HAMSTER

F CHAMFER GH HICCOUGH B ABLAUT [German?

\r\ R RED LO COLONEL

F NEUFCHATEL U MILIEU Y BOGEYMAN J JEN [Chinese? H SHA-SHIH [Chinese? OE LOESS [German?

\s\ S SAY Z LOZENGE

C CELL TH HETH [Hebrew? X WAX

\sh\ SH SHY S SURE

TI NATION X LUXURY CH CHEF CI APPRECIATE

\t\ T TEA Z PALAZZO [Italian?

D WUNDERKIND - MARZIPAN ED PASSED

  • ABUNDANCE
  • ANSWER

\th\ TH THIN GH TROUGH

D AMADAN [Irish? T TAOISEACH [Irish?

\dh\ THE D CAID [Spanish?

DD EISTEDDFOD [Welsh?

\u\ U UP WO TWOPENCE

O OF OO BLOOD A WAS E THE I BIRD

\u_\ U GNU - GEODUCK [Chinook?

O DO W CWM [Welsh? OO OOZE WO TWO EW EWE

\ue\ UE BIENVENUE U GUDE [Scottish?

\v\ V VERY B HABDALAH [Hebrew?

F OF GH TROUGHS PH NEPHEW [British? W WAGON-LIT

\w\ W WAY - ONE

U QUA O COIF

V PECCAVI JU MARIJUANA [Spanish?

\y\ Y YARD G LASAGNA

U UNIT J HALLELUJAH [Hebrew? I OPINION J JAEGER [German? EW EWE H SENHOR [Portuguese? LL BILLION

\z\ Z ZONE TH CLOTHES

S IS G PARMIGIANA X XYLOPHONE

\zh\ Z AZURE G GENRE

S VISUAL J BIJOU SI ASIA X LUXURY TI EQUATION

Answer: CLOMP spells GROAN (C sounds like G in ECZEMA, LO sounds like R in COLONEL, nothing sounds like OA in BURGH, and MP sounds like N in COMPTROLLER).

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