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.