March 5, 2018 by libroshombre
If “Language is wine upon the lips,” as Virginia Woolf espoused, English is sometimes the language of winos. Take that pesky letter “Y,”; is it a vowel or not? Y comes from “waw,” a Phoenician character that looked like an enlarged “Y.” The Greeks called it “upsilon,” but when the Romans got ahold of it, Y began to be used as both a consonant and vowel to indicate Greek loan words used by Romans. Consequently, our modern vowels include “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.”
“Y” rears its ambiguous head when considering words containing both all and none of the vowels. Perusing Scrabble.Merriam.com’s Words Without Vowels list reveals they often contain a “y.” For example, there are 5 two-letter words: “hm” (abbreviation of “headmaster,”), “mm” (interjection “used to express assent or satisfaction”), and straightforward “sh,” but there’s also “by” and “my.” Of the three longest “vowelless words,” “glycyls” (the “monovalent acyl radical in glycine”) and “rhythms” are infiltrated by “y’s,” and only “tsktsk” (to tsk”) is purely consonantal. On the other hand, over 150 words contain all the vowels, including “y,” such as “duoliterally” (“having two letters”), and “placentiously” (“pleasing or inclined to please”).
Challenging spellings abounded at the Literacy Council of Alaska’s recent 26th BizBee competition. I was a judge, which is painfully ironic, since I exemplify one of the evening’s spelling words, “cacography” (“bad spelling”). Not to be fustian (“pompous or overblown”) about it, but it was fun and important funding was raised for the Literacy Council, who’ll put it to good use. And a slew of amusing words were encountered along the way, including “Slurvian” (“speech performed hurriedly”), “brachyology” (“conciseness of expression”), and a couple of good Alaska terms: “verglas” (“thin film of ice on rock”) and “pogonip” (“a dense winter fog containing frozen particles” AKA “ice fog”).
Reading our library’s copy of “Apples Are From Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared,” was also a fun somewhat quirky, but highly informative book about that country by Christopher Robbins. I learned that apples and tulips both came from that region, and that it was first deduced in the early 1900s by Nicolai Vavilov, a donkey-riding Russian research scientist whose conclusions have since been proven. Preacher Billy Sunday’s boast, “When the English language gets in my way, I walk over it,“ came to mind after reading the about the recent decision by Kazakhstan’s ruler, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, to switch his country’s alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. His plan requires using “lots and lots of apostrophes” to replace a bevy of sounds and letters in the spoken Kazak tongue that don’t exist in other Latin alphabet-based languages.
“Kazakhstan has steadily chipped away at the legacy of Moscow’s political and cultural hegemony,” according to “Kazakhstan Cheers New Alphabet, Except forAll Those Apostrophes,” a NYTimes.com article by Andrew Higgins. Under Nazarbayev’s leadership Kazakhstan’s become the most stable country in a highly volatile region, he designated Kazak the main language of the government and schools instead of Russian, and required teaching English to be as emphasized as Russian. He’s produced scads of movies and television shows featuring his country’s traditional culture and history, and his countrymen love recapturing their nomadic identity. But when Nazarbayev overrode the experts who said using a bunch of apostrophes to approximate all the sounds and meanings in Kazak is beyond the ABCs’ capability, the decision’s proving less popular because it will make using Google next to impossible in the Kazak language. And their librarians must be horrified by the conversion labors ahead of them.
Before Kazakhstan’s leaders monkey with alphabets, they should harken to a cautionary tale from the 1800s when it was decided to force English grammar into a Latin mold. As noted wordsmith Bill Bryson relates it, “English grammar is so complex and confusing for the one very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common … Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football.”
And as Oliver Goldsmith wrote, “Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain, With grammar, and nonsense, and learning, Good liquor, I stoutly maintain, Gives genius a better discerning.”