An Old Distinction

6 04 2010

Driving home from a camping holiday, I’m sorry to say that I got a little irate with a good friend. I enjoy driving and, as a result, I was happy to do all of it myself. An upshot of that, however, was that I was rather tired some four hours into our journey home, and probably shorter of temper than I usually am. She had issued me with a challenge, which I was happy to accept: there are four countries in the world, the names of which possess only a single vowel. What are they? I thought long and hard, and couldn’t think of a single one. Finally, in a moment of triumph, I exclaimed, “France!”

“No,” she said. “That has two vowels.”

Two vowels!?? “France”, I pointed out, has one vowel only: a frontal low /a/, if you are an Anglophile like myself, or a back low /ɑ/ if you are one of the other 20,000,000 Australians. Nope, she said. France has two vowels: an “a” and an “e”.

This was already barely worth arguing, so I gave up. What are the countries with only a single vowel? “Well,” she said. “The first is Egypt”…

That was the point at which I lost it. “Egypt”, I stated rather tersely, has two vowels: a long /e/ and a short /i/. “No”, she insisted, “it has one vowel. The initial “E”!”

Of course, her perspective is just as valid as my own. While I am treating the word “vowel” as possessing a phonological definition, she is treating it orthographically. And she is certainly not alone. Frequently, I both hear and see people observe that Hebrew lacks vowels. And frequently, I find myself correcting these people by noting that every language on the planet has vowels, but that Hebrew traditionally lacks a means of representing them graphemically. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to appreciate this. Vowels, to them, are five letters of the English alphabet, to the mysterious exclusion of “y”. I suppose that the initial capital of Uganda constitutes a vowel from this perspective, and that the word “crypt” has none.

The challenge that my friend was giving me, so far as I am concerned, was really to name four countries, the names of which possess only a single “a”, a single “e”, a single “i”, a single “o”, or a single “u”. Not that exciting really, and not much different from having asked me to name four countries, the names of which feature only a single “p”, “b”, “m”, “f” or “v”. Sure, they’re all representative of bilabials and labio-dentals, but who cares?

In reality, vowels are simply the result of egressive pulmonic airflow through vibrating or constricted vocal folds in the larynx, and have absolutely nothing to do with the means by which people have, arbitrarily, chosen to represent them visually. “Egypt” has two short vowels, “Laos” has a single diphthong (or two vowels, coalesced), “France” has only the one vowel (long or short, depending on pronunciation), and “Kyrgyzstan” (the next country on her list) has a mighty three. Try explaining that at 110km/h.




8 responses

6 04 2010

At 110km/h, I think the Doppler would turn your vowels into fricatives.

7 04 2010
Judy Redman

When I was learning about these things, we were taught that ‘y’ sometimes functions as a consonant and sometimes as a vowel, but I suppose your friend would say that “functioning as” is not the same as “being”. :-)

7 04 2010
Simon Holloway

That is true, Judy, but to that end, “u” can also function as a consonant as well as a vowel (as in my “Uganda” example), and indeed the whole business is arbitrary to the extreme. Mind you, Daniel’s point may also indicate a certain phonetic subjectivity…

8 04 2010

That’s right “y” is not a vowel but is does modify other ‘True’ vowels. so it’s considered as vowel. confused? that English for you.

8 04 2010
John Hobbins

Which reminds me, at what point is an anaptyctic vowel a true vowel? Segholates anyone? Then there is the lovely shva, and gradations thereof.

But even if you want to stick with IE languages, is “happy” one syllable or two and how many vowels can a syllable have? Many languages have a final shva-like vowel, a sort of tail that doesn’t wag the dog, in CvCs.

Thanks for making me reach for A Course in Phonetics by Ladefoged in my pastor’s study.

8 04 2010
Simon Holloway

Given that I would define a vowel, strictly, as egressive pulmonic airflow, etc etc, I think it’s reasonable to ditch the old half-vowel terminology and greet the shewa as a friend. I can’t comment on IE languages, because all I know is what comes naturally (my Greek and Latin classes were never pursued to so conceptual a level), but I quite like the mechanical Hebraic insistence on syllables being either open (Cv) or closed (CvC), with nothing in between. Of course, that doesn’t speak for jawbreaking Persian loanwords or for the anomalous שתים, but let’s not overly complicate things.

10 04 2010
John Hobbins

Yeah. But let’s think historically for a moment about anaptyctic vowels. At what point is *Abd-Malk* to be considered to have, not two syllables, but four: Eved-Melech? This problem comes up in a lot of languages which have consonant clusters.

Plus, it is interesting, as Geoffrey Khan has shown, that the native tradition did not syllabify as we do. CvCv structures, in which the first v is a shva, count as one unit on a par with CvC units. Just an example.

10 04 2010
Simon Holloway

I think that Abd-Malk* began to possess four syllables the moment people started pronouncing it eved melekh, but it’s impossible to say when that was from the literary evidence alone. This comes back again to my insistence (“insistence” is probably too strong a word) that the word “vowel” (and the word “syllable”, for that matter) represents a phonological reality, and one that only has a shadow of a representation in the orthographic world.

As for the Tiberian tradition of vocalisation (which I am assuming is what you are referring to as “native”?), it has some peculiarities. I would suggest that they probably didn’t register the shewa as a sound at all, the sometimes vocalisation of it being a mere necessity produced by the clustering of consonants. I would disagree, from a phonological perspective, but agree insofar as it shouldn’t alter the quality of the vowels around it.

In such a manner, for example, a Cv (where the v is a shewa), which follows immediately after another Cv, is taken as possessing a shewa nach, and closes the long syllable. There are innumerable examples of this. I can’t think of any of the opposite, however: of a CvCv in which the first vowel is a shewa… Does Geoffrey Khan list any? Do you remember where he said this?

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