Sunday, June 27, 2010

“W” Gets Its Day

I have an open mind, I’d like to think, and I’m not one to judge people just because they’re so clearly wrong. This generous spirit allows me to accept people who learned to remember their vowels incorrectly with the phrase A, E, I, O U and sometimes Y. It should have been A, E, I, O U and sometimes Y and W, but a lot of English-speakers seemed to have learned from teachers who either didn’t consider “W” to be vowel-like or simply hated their students and wanted them to never understand language. (Surprise! It’s usually the latter. You should be angry about it.) It’s too bad. Not only is mine more accurate, it kind of rhymes, if you think “you” and “double-yoo” count as a rhyming pair. (Lazy poets would say so!)

But yeah, “W” acts like a vowel sometimes. “Like when?” the doubters usually respond. “Well, like in my name, for one. The ‘E’ makes the noise it does only because it’s paired with the ‘W.’ They make a diphthong. If they weren’t making the vowel sound, my name would be pronounced dreh-wa instead of droo.” And that usually straightens them out pretty well, even if they suspect that “W” can’t truly be a vowel in English since it cannot form a syllable by itself. And that’s true — it can’t. But it is still a semivowel.

I’ve actually wondered if the English “W” is a vowel more often than we realize. If you asked people what noise that letter represents, they’ll say “wuh,” kind of like the first syllable in water. But when you really think about how the sound comes out of your mouth, the “W” makes people make an abbreviated “oo” noise that slides into whatever vowel comes next. The “wuh” noise comes naturally as your mouth moves from the “oo” position to however it needs to be to make a vowel. That “oo” sounds a lot more like a vowel than a consonant. Of course, this line of thinking will only lead you to melt your brain as you start reconsidering the relationship between letters on a page and sounds that come out of your mouth. Besides, the process of chopping up a word and assigning its sounds to letters seems like it often leaves out certain transitional noises. For example, don’t people often pronounce the word girl like it’s two syllables? Or at least something more than two syllables? Is there a phantom “U” lurking between the “R” and the “L”?

The raging “vowel or consonant” debate surrounding the letter “W” — and tearing our nation apart, clearly — is probably a lot easier for the Welsh, of course, because their crazy language actually allows “W” to exist on its own, as the only vowel. And it happens to get that honor in the word of the week:
crwth (KROOTH) — noun: an archaic stringed instrument associated particularly with Wales, although once played widely in Europe.
At this point, I really should re-title this series “Words You’ll never Have Reason to Use,” but I’m honestly amused that crwth exists in English — as a loanword from Welsh, sure, but nonetheless as the best word to describe the thing that it’s attached to, even with its peculiar “W” sitting there in the middle, making noises that it usually can’t make on its own.

see how happy crwth-ownership made this man?

A small epilogue: “W” got its revenge, by the way. After years of neglect, it managed to work its way into every URL ever. Sure, it’s the part you don’t have to type, but it usually shows up anyway — and in triplicate, no less. Alas, it usually doesn’t show up on this blog, unless you’re this one regular reader in the greater Los Angeles area who always types it in that way. Despite all the great things I’ve said about the letter “W” in this post, I encourage you, mysterious Southern California reader, to stop doing this. You’ll free up gain valuable seconds in your life.

Sidenote: I didn’t realize this until today, but clicking on the pronunciation of a word on Wiktionary takes you to a list of rhymes for that word. You lazy poets will doubtlessly benefit from knowing that crwth can be paired with booth, truth, youth and the always overlooked strewth. This particular rhyming page also includes a strange “See also”: “Humorous (though possibly offensive) rhymes can be formed by spelling words ending in -us as if they were being pronounced by someone with a lisp.)” Seriously, the weirdest rhyming advice I’ve ever heard. (Disclaimer: I have never been given rhyming advice.) Though it will doubtlessly prove helpful with my summer project, composing filthy limericks about a lisping detective.

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  1. Hellooooo, Scrabble ace-in-the-hole.

  2. And that's about all it's good for, unless you study specifically Welsh musical instruments, in which case you probably already knew this word and can also tell me why this article is incorrect if five separate places.

  3. Here's the thing, in Spanish the only reason the W exists is to use it for foreign words, such as Hawaiano or Taiwán.
    Also in many Spanish speaking countries the W is called double V and most words have had the W taken away and replaced by v as an equivalent. Like Vals for waltz.
    But in México, being so close to the USA the name of the letter is doble u, just like double yoo :D

  4. Alice: Actually, it was my memories of high school Spanish --- where I learned that "west" was "oeste" --- that made me wonder about exactly what noise "w" actually made.

  5. Actually I'm amazed you didn't use the word cwm instead, which actually does get used here in England.