Vowels And Other Languages

If you're on the Net, and you have friends on the Net, then odds are you saw the "Vowels To Bosnia" joke that circulated a while back. If you haven't, well, there's a couple of athletes who have been dubbed "Buy A Vowel" because their names seem to be short a few vowels.

In this semi-didactic rant, I'm going to tell you why I don't find any of this particularly amusing.

See, there's a little bit of English-centrism here. (Anglocentrism would be a better word for that, but unfortunately the British have that one tied up.) And there's probably some relationship to the fact that, compared to the average Continental European, the native English speaker's knowledge of other languages tends to be pathetic. As a result, most of them have little or no conception of how other languages might work(if they even know that much about their own--but that's another rant, and probably not one I'm qualified for), and tend to judge them by the standards of English, which is somewhat wrongheaded.

Here I'm mostly going to talk about the alphabet, and a little bit of phonetics and stuff too. I'm not even going to touch on grammar, but odds are your monolingual assumptions are going to be way off there for other languages too, and perhaps this will humble you into realizing that.

Our alphabet is by no means "our" alphabet. The Romans invented it, mostly cobbled from the Greeks, which is why it's named after them, and they spread it throughout most of Western Europe, and a bit of Eastern too. Should it come as a surprise that, in the intervening centuries, different people have come to use it in different ways?

Let's take the languages seemingly most conspicuous in "vowellessness"--Welsh and Serbo-Croatian. Welsh has lots of w's sitting in the middles of words, and Serbo-Croatian r's. These make the words look, to us, like they're missing a few vowels, because everyone knows that 'w' and 'r' are consonants, right? Vowels are 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o', 'u', and sometimes 'y', right?

In English, maybe. But other languages can draw their lines wherever they please. In Welsh, 'w' can be a vowel, with a sound like the 'u' in put. ('W' wasn't in the original Roman alphabet anyway, but, like 'U', split off from the letter 'V'.)

And Serbo-Croatian--well, the 'r' is a vowel, despite the fact that we wouldn't consider it a vowel, or a single sound at all, in standard English pronunciation. Simply put, it's the "er" sound, like in Srb. In English, we consider that a vowel+consonant sound, but it can also be viewed as a single sound. (Technically, it may not be strictly a vowel, but it serves the same purpose in a syllable.) So Bosnia doesn't need any vowels at all, thank you. (And, again to be technical, it's Croatians who spell it 'r', because Serbians use the Cyrillic alphabet.)

And hey, while I'm thinking of it, a lot of Slavic and Germanic languages, obviously excluding English, use the 'j' as a semivowel, pronounced just like we use 'y'. Most languages use 'j' in some idiosyncratic way, or don't use it at all, since it wasn't part of the original Roman alphabet either. French and Portuguese use it as a 'zh' sound, for instance, and Spanish as a harsh 'h'. 'Q' and 'x' have similarly muddy fates, the former as a highly guttural consonant and the latter as the 'kh' sound(German 'ch'), or sometimes as 'sh' or something.

Of course, the whole idea that certain arrangements of consonants can't be pronounced without a vowel is another English monolingual conceit. Something called "phonotactics" defines, for a language, which sounds, and arrangements of sounds, are "legal" for the language, in that they can form words in the language. Phonotactic setups for various languages vary widely, from the vowel-heavy syllables of Hawaiian and Japanese to the consonant-heavy syllables of Georgian. (And these are not true extremes, but close to them.) We may find ourselves having difficulty in saying Georgian place names like Tbilisi and Tkvarcheli and Tskhinvali, but English is certainly closer to that end of the spectrum than the other. ('Strengths', a perfectly legal English one-syllable word, would be almost impossible for someone who spoke only Hawaiian, with a maximum of one consonant per syllable...)

And even with the vowels that we're sure are vowels, for their pronunciations we have somewhat of a minority opinion, especially for 'a', 'e', and 'i'. (I confess that I'm talking about 'standard English' here, and really 'standard American English'. Talk about centrism! Oh, well.) Oh, for the short versions we're pretty close to the consensus. Most languages use a short 'a' sound closer to the one we use in 'father' than to the one in 'bad', but it's still not too far off.

But sometime in our language's history(and, I seem to recall, in that of closely related languages like Dutch and possibly German...(?)), the long vowels underwent a big shift away from what the rest of Europe understood them to be.

Try an experiment, if you're not at a terminal somewhere with people around who will laugh and/or glare at you for making weird noises in front of your screen. Say the short 'e' sound. All by itself. Okay, now make the sound a bit longer(not a long 'e', though)and put a little 'y' at the end. Didn't that sound like what we, for some reason, call a "long a"? And if you do the same thing with 'i', you'll get a "long e", and with 'a', a "long i". (Although "long a" in most languages doesn't sound like our "long i", but very much like the 'a' in 'father'. Most languages use something like 'ai' for spelling our "long i" sound.)

This is the mapping that most of the other Roman-alphabet-using languages are using. This is why I used to wince anytime I heard about the "Exxon Valdeeeez". When encountering a non-English language in the Roman alphabet(with the exceptions I mentioned above, since they also followed the vowel shift), this is more than likely the way they're using their vowels. (I confess that I still can't pronounce some things, like the Greek letters "phi", "chi", etc., to rhyme with "fee" and "key", but that's more a matter of early conditioning than anything else.)

What is my point here? Just to be aware of your assumptions. Our language's rules are not graven in stone as the default for all languages by any means, and the more you know what you've been taking for granted as true, the easier it may be for you to reconcile yourself to the fact that it may not always be.

Last updated: 1/19/2006

The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com