“English spelling is ridiculous”
July 31, 2021 1:49 AM   Subscribe

These norms in the literacy of English speakers today are so well entrenched that simple adjustments are very jarring. If ai trai tu repreezent mai akshuel pronownseeayshun in raiteeng, yu kan reed it, but its difikelt and disterbeeng tu du soh. It just looks wrong, and that feeling of wrongness interrupts the flow of reading.
Typos, tricks and misprints is an essay by linguist Arika Okrent about why English spelling is so damn weird.
posted by Kattullus (58 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
Word.
posted by fairmettle at 2:36 AM on July 31 [8 favorites]


I think part of the problem is that people are used to written words having shapes as well as sounds, so disrupting the shape cue makes for extra work.

Back in Shakespeare's time, spelling wasn't standardized, so there was more flexibility in reading.

People's accents vary quite a bit, so spelling as you speak might lead to a more complicated situation, not a simpler one.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:09 AM on July 31 [11 favorites]




I wonder if one factor in English's spelling staying so ridiculous is its tendency to use less word inflection. English has lots of lemmas, but English contains less unique words (including inflections) than other languages using the Latin alphabet. Would having more complex but more regular inflections tend to exert a pressure towards regularising spelling? It feels like unpredictable spelling would be significantly harder to integrate with complex inflection, and that it might lead to very strange looking and difficult to read text.

I'm not sure about the fork analogy in the piece. Forks are culturally specific eating utensils, which were adopted across Europe (and now more broadly) over time. Other cultures have tended to use other utensils for eating, with their own historical changes and development. Writing is not universal, but it's not, in itself, culture-specific. It has been invented independently on multiple occasions. So it seems like the analogue wouldn't be a fork, but rather eating utensils generally. But then you have to ask how to define eating utensil. Was a person who skewered something to cook over a fire, and then ate it off the stick, using a utensil? Maybe not formally, but the effect was certainly something like it. The same question, of course, applies to writing. At what point does mark-making merge into writing? And so, as ever with questions of language, I end up back at Derrida, and confused, which I'm sure is what the old git would've wanted.
posted by howfar at 4:36 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]


The problem goes the other way when Minnesota me says pin and someone from the south says pen - they're a homophone for some people and pronounced differently for others. If we have to figure out lead and lead (metal and precede) from context, we also have to figure out pin and pen from context when pronounced the same. The overhaul can't just be in spelling the way it sounds, if we're making spelling match how it sounds then we also have to overhaul how we talk too.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:44 AM on July 31 [6 favorites]


The thing that has brought me most consternation as I've learned more languages is that English is a language that seems entirely in denial that its most common vowel even exists.

There is no vowel for it. Even this person who is making fun of English by spelling things phonetically has just left the second 'i' in 'difficult' as if their eyes just slid right over it because the sound is an eldritch abomination which their brain cannot process.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:39 AM on July 31 [13 favorites]


Obligatory: The most well known work in this genre is The Chaos a poem by Gerard Nolst Trenité .

Read it out loud.

I show this to anglophones who are dismissive of the amazing efforts required to obtain fluency in spoken english for nonnative speakers.....

The chaos Previously on mefi.
posted by lalochezia at 5:49 AM on July 31 [28 favorites]


The thing that has brought me most consternation as I've learned more languages is that English is a language that seems entirely in denial that its most common vowel even exists.

I think the thing about schwa is that, as the mid central vowel sound, other vowels drift toward it, which is why it is the most common sound. Vowels exist on several continua, rather than having clear boundaries. Like anything with fuzzy boundaries, exactly where we perceive the borderline is variable. So it seems to me like schwa is, in English, the vowel sound characterised by not being perceived (by any given individual) as any other vowel sound. It seems to be defined by negative space, and I think that's probably sensible and appropriate.

The issue with doing otherwise is the problem of agreement on where to use it. Whether a sound is schwa or some other vowel sound varies considerably over time, between dialects and even between individuals. For example, I don't pronounce "difficult" as "ˈdɪfəkəlt", but rather as "dɪfɪkəlt", while you do. There will doubtless be words where the inverse is the case, and I blur a vowel into a schwa which you would pronounce more distinctly. And if I'm talking to someone from New Zealand, pretty much every "ɪ" they say will sound, to me, pretty much like an "ə". But it won't necessarily sound that way to them.

I'm happy with schwa being the gap between the other vowels, rather than being distinguished as a vowel in its own right, despite (because of?) its predominance as a vowel sound.
posted by howfar at 6:16 AM on July 31 [14 favorites]


In Finnish, there's a clear map between sounds and letters so that if you hear the word spoken, you can write it down... so long as the person isn't speaking with a strong regional accent.

As a native English speaker who has learned Finnish fairly well, I'm used to parsing words somewhat differently than I used to when read mostly English and French. Both of these languages are known for their... laissez faire relationship between written and spoken forms. In the end I found the quoted text quite easy to follow, to be honest.

On the other hand, when speaking Finnish my clearly non-native speaker accent does put a lot of people off. There is pretty much One True Way to say things (unless you are from one of aforementioned areas with a strong regional accent), and far less tolerance of foreign accents than amongst native English speakers.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 6:21 AM on July 31 [2 favorites]


Schwa had a whole episode (transcript) on the Lingthusiasm podcast.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 6:35 AM on July 31 [2 favorites]


Ugh. It's disappointing to see this old saw trotted out once again, and by someone who is apparently a well qualified linguist. Why don't we see this complaint about Chinese Hanji or Japanese Kanji etc? The problem isn't that English spelling doesn't represent the sound of spoken English, which would be impossible anyway because that's not a single or fixed thing. The problem is that people somehow think it should. That's probably a problem of our education system more than anything else. If you think of English words as more like Chinese Hanji or Japanese Kanji, except better because they have pronounciation hints in them and are composed of a few simple symbols for easier reading and writing, then it seems far more reasonable.
posted by merlynkline at 6:40 AM on July 31 [16 favorites]


think of English words as more like Chinese Hanji or Japanese Kanji, except better because they have pronounciation hints in them

Of course, Hanji and Kanji have definition hints in them, which useful when you want to know what a word means, rather than how to say it.
posted by spacewrench at 6:57 AM on July 31 [6 favorites]


The problem is that people somehow think it should. That's probably a problem of our education system more than anything else.

I'm not sure about that. It seems like, if that were the best way to view English and teaching it, there wouldn't be loads of evidence showing that the use of synthetic phonics is a fundamental part* of achieving optimum literacy outcomes when teaching English, in particular in relation to learning to decode texts.

And anyway, the view that English is ridiculous isn't even expressed as criticism. This isn't a polemic on spelling reform, it's a piece about how history shapes language and, in particular, how that can become embedded by technology. I'm not sure why the observation that English spelling is frequently humourously odd should be taken as anything but a stepping off point for the actual subject of the piece.

*note I say part, anyone reading this from the bloody DfE
posted by howfar at 7:03 AM on July 31 [4 favorites]


Sew and new don’t rhyme. Kernel and colonel do.

Aren't kernel and colonel homonyms; that is, they sound the same but don't rhyme?
posted by chavenet at 7:13 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


"Sew" rhymes with "new" in Received Pronunciation.

And this is the real problem with English spelling reform. Most people who go for it seem to assume a standard CNN dialect will be the one for new spellings, but that won't make reading or writing any more intuitive for people who speak Scots. Just like it took you a few chapters to get into the swing of reading Trainspotting, and it left you a month after you finished it.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 7:24 AM on July 31 [4 favorites]


I've found it becomes easier to navigate English spelling if you remember the simple rule: "I before E, except half the time."
posted by FatherDagon at 7:25 AM on July 31 [14 favorites]


Ugh. It's disappointing to see this old saw trotted out once again, and by someone who is apparently a well qualified linguist

They aren't actually complaining, despite what the excerpt might imply out of context. The point of the phonetic spelling is, if anything, to highlight how much worse it is than the standard spelling for an English reader.

I went into the article skeptically because I didn't want to read some tired write up, and got even more skeptical when I saw it was Aeon (which publishes some real crap.) But this is definitely Good Aeon!

It's especially good at explaining why English is less consistent than other languages. I always assumed Hungarian, Norwegian, Irish, etc. got better spelling as they standardized late and influenced by the 19th century national movements, which may even be true for some of them.

But this is great at explaining why Spanish, German, Italian, etc. are generally more consistent as well.
posted by mark k at 7:27 AM on July 31 [6 favorites]



Word.

but pronounced wurd.
posted by philip-random at 8:20 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]


Why don't we see this complaint about Chinese Hanji or Japanese Kanji etc?

We do see these complaints - characters are notoriously hard to learn (and yes, I have tried, did a year of study, could read simple texts, but now I can only remember the characters for "Zhong" (centre) and "da" (big)).

There was, in fact, a massive push to reform Chinese characters and Chinese writing in general, to better match the modern language.
posted by jb at 8:23 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]


The problem isn't that English spelling doesn't represent the sound of spoken English...The problem is that people somehow think it should. That's probably a problem of our education system more than anything else.

I don't know about your location, but where I grew up, my mother was subjected to a system of learning reading that dropped basic phonetics (reading by sounding things out) -- and was awful. There's a reason that "Hooked on Phonics" took off as a supplemental tutoring for children, because when it comes to learning to read an alphabetic language, sound it out is the best method - and it works for simple words like cat, mat, bat. When kids are older and more fluent readers, then they can worry about learning how to pronounce Hermione (or they can do what a lot of people do and say "Her-mion" in their heads until corrected by the movies).
posted by jb at 8:33 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]


I have a vivid memory of talking to a bunch of people about a year after I came to the US, and pronouncing 'perseverance' like 'severance', and the whole group spontaneously starting to laugh. I'd probably be one of them today, but thinking about it, I still think WTF, that's not fair. There's literally no way to tell...

I love The Chaos BTW, but you can tell it was written by a Dutch guy who spoke very British English a long time ago... E.g. there are some words you'd only know today if you read a bunch of naval fiction (looking at you, coxswain and forecastle...)

Anyway, if you made a ranking of how well languages link spelling and pronunciation, English would probably not be near the top... But hey, our brains are surprisingly good at this, so it doesn't seem like a huge deal. German has its own version of nonsensical rules, mostly involving capitalization. Let me tell you, the attempt to reform those rules in the late 90s did NOT make things less confusing, to the point where some major newspapers ended up saying fuck it and went back to the old version...

Also, I imagine that this kind of weirdness exists to some extent in every written language. German is pretty logical when it comes to pronunciation, but just as an example, there are definitely some classic poems that just do not rhyme, unless you know where the poet in question was from...
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 8:38 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]


My favourite youtube linguist Langfocus has a video on the topic.

It occurs to me that while this irregularity arose accidentally, it serves a purpose as a marker of education level and class. In order to pronounce words correctly you have first to have heard them spoken. This presupposes formal education. If you are self-taught or non-native, the chances of you getting the pronunciation correct are slim to none (hell, even an educated native speaker will pronounce words wrong occasionally, I know I do).

In other words, with England and the empire being so class-obsessed and hierarchical, it conveniently helped to "out" people who were not part of the aristocracy and this continues to this day.

And I mean literally today: one of our most contemptuous peers Lord Digby Chicken-Caesar Jones has just attacked a (black, female) sports presenter for mispronouncing words on TV. This shit just goes on forever and ever.
posted by Acey at 9:20 AM on July 31 [5 favorites]


In order to pronounce words correctly you have first to have heard them spoken.

There's also memes about how you should be proud/impressed when someone mispronounces a word because that means they learned it from reading books.
posted by straight at 9:35 AM on July 31 [12 favorites]


Incidentally, it's not like there weren't attempts at spelling reform in English, not least by Noah Webster, hence why American English has a number of different spellings. I don't know if it was motivated by egalitarianism or not, but it wound up being yet another way for English people to look down on our colonial cousins in the end.

Sadly it wasn't really very complete, or else we might be spelling things very differently today. Well, in America, at least. The rest of the Anglosphere never really caught on. Give it another few hundred years and things might be different, but I expect we'll be communicating solely using emojis by then.
posted by Acey at 9:42 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


Nearly every language with a written component has some issue around orthography vs. language-in-use.

In French, nearly half the terminal consonants are voiceless. In Japanese, people frequently have discussions about how to say or write each others' names because they use an orthographic system primarily derived from a monosyllabic tonal language to represent a polysyllabic atonal language.

This is not unique to English (although the orthographic idiosyncrasies of English are mainly the result of the fact that it is a bastard language, created from a mish-mash of what was spoken by whomever managed to successfully invade a set of backwater islands in the North Atlantic; along with the jumped-up ideas of a bunch of cultural chauvinists who thought they were the natural inheritors of Classical Antiquity).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:43 AM on July 31 [5 favorites]


...impressed when someone mispronounces a word because that means they learned it from reading books.

In my household this is referred to as "Reader's Curse" and we all love it when it happens. These are not infrequent events.
posted by majick at 9:52 AM on July 31 [16 favorites]


Yes, The Chaos makes me laugh because there are number of words that are supposed to rhyme, but don't in a lot of accents. I don't rhyme aunt with grant, nor do I pronounce lichen anything like the English people I've seen on TV (long i for me).

Modern people who like boats still know forecastle and coxswain, though.
posted by dame at 10:18 AM on July 31


Hungarian can be delightfully weird, it's just that the weirdness isn't in the orthography.
posted by gimonca at 10:31 AM on July 31


Ladle Rat Rotten Hut by H. L. Chace (1940)
posted by fairmettle at 10:59 AM on July 31 [5 favorites]


Aren't kernel and colonel homonyms; that is, they sound the same but don't rhyme?

homonym noun One of two or more words that have the same sound and often the same spelling but differ in meaning, such as bank (embankment) and bank (place where money is kept).
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:15 AM on July 31


They're homophones. Rhyming them is "rime riche", which has a French name because it's generally not seen as commendable in English prosody but is freely done in French.
posted by howfar at 11:29 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]


> They aren't actually complaining, despite what the excerpt might imply out of context

Yes. Sorry. Triggered too easily on this subject; it's been a sore point for me since I had to deal with the education system labouring phonics with my kids. It is a great way to start learning to read but as they start adding more and more complicated rules and special cases there comes a point where it's better to explain that phonetics is only good up to a point and after that you just have to remember. But maybe my kids (and I) are getting an unfair advantage from being voracious readers.

> We do see these complaints - characters are notoriously hard to learn

Well yes. My daughter is learning Japanese so I hear this complaint a lot :/. But not the specific complaint that they don't represent the sounds of the words well. Obviously they don't, but then they're not expected to. (Aside: Japanese has apparently tried to tackle this problem to some extent by having, in addition to kanji, two separate alphabets for describing the sounds of words. They still don't.)

> I think part of the problem is that people are used to written words having shapes as well as sounds

Exactly this. They are like logograms when you read fluently. No fluent reader is reading individual letters of familiar words. If you change the spelling too much then you won't be able to recognise them at a glance until you learn the new spelling properly. For unfamiliar words the fact that the spelling is at least related to the spoken word is helpful, which is more than you get for Kanji and the like.

In summary, it's complicated :). And Down with Skool.
posted by merlynkline at 11:30 AM on July 31 [4 favorites]


> I think part of the problem is that people are used to written words having shapes as well as sounds
This. [autoquote from 20 years ago when I could program in Perl].
It seems as if there are seevral dierffent meothds by which people start learning to read. An entainirteng snpipet has been citcriualng round the inertnet, which asrests that even if the certnal letters of all the words in a paaagrrph are ramdonly julbmed the rebdilaaity is very little aftfceed. So long as the first two and last two letetrs in each word are kept the same, most copmetent redears are able to unsderatnd prtety much evyretihng.

There was more stuff showing various other attacks on standard English and their effects on sense. Funnil removin th las lette o eac wor mad thing quit difficul t proces, while rmvng all intrnl vwls ws esr to dl wth. Perhaps it's all the training we've had receiving txt msgs.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:55 AM on July 31 [5 favorites]


English has spelling bees, French has so many homophones it has transcription bees.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:18 PM on July 31 [4 favorites]


Why French sounds so unlike other Romance languages. My favorite sorta just entry level not so bad language tuber.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:53 PM on July 31 [5 favorites]


I wonder if English spelling is harder to learn for non-native speakers than gendered nouns. When I lived in Germany, a nun who taught non-native speakers said that even people who otherwise speak German perfectly have trouble remembering noun genders.

Thanks for this great article. From listening to the Teaching Company’s History of the English Language class, I knew that spelling often reflected old pronunciations, but I had no idea about how the printing press figured into it. So nice to get a scholar’s take instead of a hot take “English is weird” despite the click bait title.
posted by FencingGal at 1:55 PM on July 31 [2 favorites]


(Aside: Japanese has apparently tried to tackle this problem to some extent by having, in addition to kanji, two separate alphabets for describing the sounds of words. They still don't.)

my guess is that the original function of these alphabets was more about tacking sounds on the end of a kanji to conjugate verbs/adjectives/etc., and to have something to use for the single-syllable particles that do a lot of grammatical work in Japanese sentences; then katakana proved very handy to represent foreign loanwords phonetically

I'm not great at reading Japanese or knowing kanji but even at a fairly low level I find it way easier to read text with kanji than text rendered all in hiragana because 1) it's easier to tell where words begin & end, and 2) if you look up a kanji word it's likely to have one meaning or a close cluster of meanings, where a hiragana word could be any one of several homonyms requiring context to separate
posted by taquito sunrise at 2:17 PM on July 31


English is on both edges of time; the past where every Saxon village met the Franks, the Goths, the Vikings, the Danes, the Germans, Italians, the Balkans, their own neighbors in the Irish, Welch, Scottish, and the naming of every trade and crosstrade; while the future is in the mouth of every living young person who must live and speak fluidly in a mutable world. Instead of getting it right for the bored and destitute of creativity, they have to move in an ever more global paradigm, with nationalist and nativist speakers of every language, beating the drum for preservation, usually of the diction of the upper classes, or academics, and all the while colonialism which refuses to die painfully, destroys indigenous languages to their own ends. English is in one sense completely posed, while it's children engage in verbal parkour, right and left. Oh yes, and the essay test is dead, yo.
posted by Oyéah at 2:30 PM on July 31 [6 favorites]


Kana, a syllabic script from which both modern Hiragana and Katakana were derived, comes from a simplified Chinese cursive script, and was often preferred by people without formal training in Chinese. Frequently, this meant upper-class women (especially during the Heian period, when aristocratic Japanese society was extremely Sinophilic, but also practiced rigid gender segregation), which is why some of the earliest Japanese novels (such as the Genji Monogatari) were written in Kana.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:32 PM on July 31 [7 favorites]


English is a language that seems entirely in denial that its most common vowel even exists.

There is no vowel for it.


I’d say it has several; indeed every vowel, albeit nothing dedicated to it. In my usual accent the a in attempt , the e in edition , the i in centipede, the o in gallop, and the u in ladybug are all schwas.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:52 PM on July 31


It’s more or less in the linked poem but my favorite set of words has got to be:

Bough
Cough
Dough
Rough
Tough

It’s not as weird as genders for inanimate objects though :-)
posted by freecellwizard at 3:57 PM on July 31 [3 favorites]


This dreadful language:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
I've been studying Korean recently, and every time I run up against something that makes me think "that's not fair!" I remind myself that as a native English speaker, I have zero right to complain. Less than zero, actually.

It's slightly reassuring that all the Korean teachers I've encountered so far (Mr. Kim, Go Billy, the TTMIK instructors) have said something along the lines of "These pronunciation changes are basically what happens when you speak quickly and don't enunciate precisely, so they'll eventually come naturally to you."
posted by Lexica at 4:40 PM on July 31 [3 favorites]


Kana, a syllabic script from which both modern Hiragana and Katakana were derived, comes from a simplified Chinese cursive script, and was often preferred by people without formal training in Chinese. Frequently, this meant upper-class women (especially during the Heian period, when aristocratic Japanese society was extremely Sinophilic, but also practiced rigid gender segregation), which is why some of the earliest Japanese novels (such as the Genji Monogatari) were written in Kana.

very cool to now know this, thanks!
posted by taquito sunrise at 5:19 PM on July 31


(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations.
Tieckle."

-James Joyce.
posted by clavdivs at 10:20 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


"Sew" rhymes with "new" in Received Pronunciation.

What?
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:41 AM on August 1 [4 favorites]


"Sew" rhymes with "new" in Received Pronunciation.

Umm, new, I really don't think sew.
posted by wachhundfisch at 6:19 AM on August 1 [7 favorites]


They mostly rhyme. Mostly.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:31 AM on August 1


Who cares about RP (prescribed to be spoken by tens of millions of people, actually spoken by tens of thousands) - "sew" definitely rhymes with "new" in English as spoken in India and China. That's hundreds of millions of people.
posted by MiraK at 6:47 AM on August 1 [1 favorite]


My favorite is "ghoti" as an alternate spelling of "fish". Pronounce "gh" as in "enough", "o" as in "women", and "ti" as in "mention".
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:38 AM on August 1 [3 favorites]


"Ghoti" is typically attributed to Shaw, in view of his support for spelling reform, but considering the Joyce quote above, maybe the source actually lies with another Irish literary giant.

What I'm wondering is whether the ghoti is actually a Finnegan's hake.

That was a long walk for a very small pun. I'm sorry, I've been up all night.
posted by howfar at 9:43 PM on August 1 [5 favorites]


wait!
posted by howfar at 9:49 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]


If you really want to lose your mind, look up English rules for stressed syllables. Or adjective ordering rules. There is a ton of stuff native speakers do casually that is very difficult for second language learners.

Spelling is not even close to the hardest part, it is just very visibly off-kilter, even to native speakers.
posted by your postings may, in fact, be signed at 7:42 AM on August 2 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure the spoken idiosyncracies of English are unique though. Certainly I started thinking about them only when I was studying other languages, where the existence of weird rules gets contrasted with weird English rules.

German has rules on adjective order, gendered nouns, and of course the infamous verb placement on subordinate clauses and past tense, just to name a few things. I briefly tried to learn a few words of Hungarian, an agglutinative language, and quit when I was told the rules on changing pronunciation of the roots in different contexts were far too complicated to explain in the intro course.

The appeal of TFA for me is the fact that it is not simply saying "English is illogical;" it is specifically making the case that English orthography is especially illogical compared to other languages, and explaining how that happened.
posted by mark k at 11:57 AM on August 2 [4 favorites]


soda/pop
posted by clavdivs at 5:09 PM on August 2


The thing that has brought me most consternation as I've learned more languages is that English is a language that seems entirely in denial that its most common vowel even exists.

I think I find myself instinctively “schwa-ing” an inordinate number of vowels, and consequentially, I always have the hardest time spelling words with “schwa-ed” vowels. I’ve always attributed this to my Midwestern upbringing, because I heard somewhere that “Midwesterners flatten their vowel sounds”, but I don’t know if this is exactly the case.

Do Midwesterners, in fact, flatten our vowel sounds?
posted by panama joe at 10:03 PM on August 2


Do midwestenahs fleatten owah val soundz?
posted by Oyéah at 3:02 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]


Let us have some new words, more contemporary uses.
LAtent-Portable housing for those who live under overpasses, rather than canyons.
posted by Oyéah at 3:04 PM on August 3


For multitudinous examples of the revitalisation of old words, see the Uxbridge English Dictionary, courtesy of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.

A random selection from D:
Decorum
What you do to apples before cooking them.

Defray
A partical beam weapon which causes its targets to lose their hearing.

Delegate
An Indian Political scandal.
posted by howfar at 9:29 AM on August 22


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