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? 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!
Best Answer -
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.