Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Perils of Orthography or Words Without Vowels

I just signed up for the new online linguistics magazine Cambridge Extra as advertised on The Linguist List. The magazine is apparently going to run little Q&A competitions every issue – “In each issue you will have the chance to win different prizes from Cambridge University Press.” The inaugural question is this

What is the longest word in the English Language without a vowel in its spelling?

Now, the key here is “in its spelling”. When I first read the question, I missed that part and thought real hard about this. Hmmmm, I thought, is there a word in English that has no vowel when pronounced? It’s true that there are expressions that we utter that are voweless, like “Hmmmm” above, or answering a question like my mom with “MmmHmm”. But it’s real easy to get tricked by orthography when analyzing a “word” like nth as in ‘the nth iteration”. While spelled with no vowel, it is pronounced with an initial vowel, something like /ε/, an open, mid, front vowel. I Googled the question and discovered quite a range of attempts at answering the question, almost all of them consistently mistook orthography for phonology.

This is like frikkin crack to a linguistics blogger! I found this juicy, but representative answer posted on Yahoo! Answers posted by “Mrs. C”:

Is there any word without a Vowel?
Best Answer - Chosen by Voters
sky, rhythm

PS: To the people screaming 'Y is a vowel' ... er, no it's not! A E I O U are the only 5 vowels. Y SOUNDS like a vowel in certain words, but it doesn't 'become' a vowel just because it sounds like one! Even my 8 year old students can tell you this!

Although this answer is consistent with the intent of the spelling constraint, I love this part: “Y SOUNDS like a vowel in certain words, but it doesn't 'become' a vowel just because it sounds like one!” Heehee. With an exclamation point for emphasis too!!! Has there ever been a more convoluted blurring of the difference between letters and phonemes?

To put it simply, Yes! If something sounds like a vowel, it does indeed become one! Regardless of what orthographic representation it may take. Although phonology and writing systems were never my interests in linguistics, I am quite certain that orthographies are never more than convenient hacks engineered to approximate the phonology and phonotactics of a language. They are always imperfect.


Mike B. said...

Mrs. C. is a real bitch. When I was in grammar school we were specifically taught that "y" is *sometimes* a vowel.

Orthography is just a kind of folk phonology anyway. When the initial spellings were devised for the words she cites, was the author's intention to indicate that they had no vowels? No, he was representing those vowels as "y." "Nth" is only slightly better--it's only a word insofar as "N" is one, and the names of letters of the alphabet are clearly orthographic exceptions to the usual vowel requirements.

Mike B. said...

(I should probably have finished reading this post before commenting, because you made essentially the same points, but better.)

Chris said...

Hehe, rash postings on half-read blogs are what blogging is all about.

Safwan said...

Greetings. I found this page while googling the words "vowel extraction' - a subject I am interested in for amature investigation. I speak Arabic, Polish and English and I want to compare the impact of vowel contribution to the structure of these languages. I wish to know whether there is a software - or better ; a device, an equipment - which output is the audio signal with mere vowels. Aprreciation for your response.


Chris said...

Safwan, thanks for the post. I'm not exactly sure what you're looking for, but I'd start by trying to get Praat to do what you need. If that doesn't work, I'd email the Praat developers for sugegstions. Good luck.

Praat website:

Safwan said...

Thank you Chris for Praat. I'm overwhelmed because my knowledge about phonetics is around the kindergarten level. I'll make time to learn, experiment and hope for something meaningful. Have a great New Year.


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