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March 7, 2009

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The Names of Letters

In English, the names of (some) vowel sounds are given by a smaller subset of those sounds — so “A” involves one of the pronunciations of “a,” ditto “E,” “I,” and “O,” with the exception of “U,” which by all rights ought to be “oo” instead of “yoo.” Let’s just chalk this up to the Y-as-an-assistant-vowel phenomenon, whereby the “U” in words like “cute” or “fume” is pronounced “yoo.” And “I” is a dipthong, but that’s neither here nor there.

Consonants are generally either given by a pronounciation of a consonant plus a vowel (“B” = “bee”) or a vowel plus the consonant (“S” = “ess”). “W” is weird, as is “H,” “Y” is and always shall be a mess. “Q” is, surprisingly, not bad; even if it slights the typical sound of the consonant — arguably, so does “C.”

Consonants are even harder than vowels to articulate completely in isolation, so it seems obvious that you need SOME vowel with the consonant. But why do some letters get the vowel in front and others the vowel in behind? And while most letters get the short e in front or the long E behind, this isn’t universal - “J” and “K” could just as easily by “Jee” and “Kee” (assuming that “G” was “ghi” or “gay” or “goo” or something else).

You could say that as a general rule, names of letters avoid being homonyms with meaningful words, but “B,” “C,” “J,” “P,” and “T” violate this rule — in the case of “B,” pretty drastically.

I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there is some partial motivation for the sounds we use — maybe “M, “N,” or “S” appear more often at the end of words than other letters, so they get known by an end-consonant sound.

Think with me — imagine an alphabet where all the names of consonants were reversed, so that:

“B” = “ebb”
“C” = “ack” / K = “eck”
“D” = “edd,”
“M” = “mee”
“N” = “nee”

and so on. What would be wrong with that pronunciation of the alphabet?

Posted March 7, 2009 at 5:31 | Comments (10) | Permasnark
File under: Gleeful Miscellany


1. Your proposed 'B' makes me think of my A-#1 favorite Scandinavian girl's name: Ebba.

2. Your scheme is entirely plausible, but I am still partial to the military's solution. More verbose, yes. More fun: Also yes! Alpha bravo, x-ray zebra!

You seem to be trying to impose logic on something that is the product of thousands of years of language change. Good luck trying to get anyone to change how they pronounce ANYTHING, let alone something that has been ingrained in us as long as letter names!
And by the way, you've forgotten about "zed," as our friends in the British Empire say. :)

And yet "zed" got regularized to "zee" within just a couple of centuries! So much for the unmovable weight of history -- language is always changing.

All languages oscillate between grammatical and lexical components, organized structures and brute facts. Names of letters are just "grammatical" enough to suggest a logical structure, with relatively little irregularity. What I'm trying to do is to imagine a completely alternative structure to show the contingency/necessity of the one we have.

Dimestore structuralism: It's because language is contingent, conventional that people insist so strongly on upholding the conventions -- the necessity tying the sound to the concept is the only thing holding it together.

Hangul, y'all. An alphabet designed from the ground up in the 1500s. And the motives for doing so are actually sort of inspiring:

In explaining the need for the new script, King Sejong explained that the Korean language was different from Chinese; using Chinese characters (known as hanja) to write was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats (yangban), usually male, could read and write fluently. The majority of Koreans were effectively illiterate before the invention of Hangul.

Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write; the Haerye says "A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days."

So sure, why not? I'm in. But of course you realize: We need a new song.

"Aye ebb eck edd..."

You know, the original Greek/Phoenecian/Hebrew alphabet provides a good counterexample:

Each of the Phoenician letter names was a word that began with the sound represented by that letter; thus 'aleph, the word for “ox”, was adopted for the glottal stop /ʔ/, bet, or “house”, for the /b/ sound, and so on.

When the letters were adopted by the Greeks, most of the Phoenician names were maintained or modified slightly to fit Greek phonology; thus, 'aleph, bet, gimel became alpha, beta, gamma. These borrowed names had no meaning in Greek except as labels for the letters.

However, a few signs that were added or modified later by the Greeks do in fact have names with a meaning. For example, o mikron and o mega mean “small o” and “big o”. Similarly, e psilon and u psilon mean “plain e” and “plain u”, respectively.

So, the two principles for the Phoenician alphabet -- the name of every letter SHOULD be a word, and should begin with the sound it represents -- each get gradually relaxed, until in contemporary English the first is very nearly prohibited and the second is inverted for about half the consonants in the bunch.

If we were going to redo the English alphabet today according to the Phoenician principles, what would the names be?

We already have that alphabet, don't we?

You know, the NATO alphabet satisfies those conditions, but it adds a new wrinkle - the names of letters have to be clearly distinguishable from each other, so you can tell them apart over the radio. This would toss out modern English, with its nearly indistinguishable "tee" and "dee," "bee" and "pee," but also the Greek "epsilon/upsilon," "theta/zeta," usw.

I should add that I was thinking of the Phoenician practice of matching letter names to everyday words, specifically things -- the NATO alphabet skirts this by way of place and person names, and cheating outright with "X-ray."

You still have the W problem in your new alphabet! Except now it's either "elboud-ouy"(quite a mouthful) or "You-dubs" (ever-appended by "Bro").

I think the Snarkmatrix should develop a new name for W and propagate it. "Wow" perhaps? "Waw"? "Two-valleys-bisected-by-a-sharply-heaven-aspirant-peak"?

None of the alphabet could exist without writing, but W is the only letter whose name refers to how it looks. However, if you wamted to do it phonetically according to the broader norms of American English, then:

W = wee
W = ew.

Wee, probably.

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