Sound reasoning

A couple of weeks ago, on the Tantamount Words blog, I wrote about the USA Spelling Bee and commented about how a knowledge of the etymology of a word can help with spelling, particularly in a language like English where many different languages have contributed to the vocabulary.

Often, knowing how a word is pronounced is little help when it comes to writing it, but I personally don’t favour spelling reform as the written form can give us all sorts of clues about word families and relationships.

If we spelled photograph and photography as they are pronounced, who would guess that they were linked? Using the @ sign to indicate the unstressed (schwa) sound, and capitals to indicate main stress, I think we have something like:

  • photograph: FOTE-@-graf
  • and

  • photography: f@-TOG-r@-fee
  • In terms of sound, ‘photography’ seems to have more in common with f@-TEEG than with ‘photograph’.

    It occurred to me how ridiculous the idea of a spelling bee must seem to a Spaniard. In Spanish, each letter corresponds to a single sound so it’s really quite difficult to mis-spell. Not impossible, mind you, as the ‘h’ is silent and there are a few pairs of letters that are pronounced the same – at least in most Spanish accents. So the words echo (1st person singular of the regular verb echar) and hecho (past participle of the irregular verb hacer) sound identical (for all Spanish speakers), as do vaca and baca (for most Spanish speakers).

    I do find it difficult to understand how the beggars who write their signs on scraps of cardboard manage to come up with phrases such as “no tengo travajo” and “no covro pensión” or even “que Dios os vendiga; in that last sentence, the irregular subjunctive form is perfect, but the writer commited one of the very few possible spelling errors in the language.

    Although it has adopted words from other languages, Spanish usually adapts them to the ortografía española, so pedants in Spain drink güisqui and buy their chóped by the quilogramo.

    Another thing about Spanish is the tendency to take the first word of a phrase as the most important. So the chóped in the above paragraph is derived from ‘chopped ham’, but the noun has long been abandoned.

    The same things happens with band names, so where a Brit would talk of the Stones and Priest, a Spaniard would say Los Rolling and Los Judas. (They’d also pronounce them with their own special trilled ‘r’ and guttural ‘j’, making the names almost completely unrecognisable to angloparlantes.)

    Like the little girl with the makings of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said: ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’, I’m not sure where all this is headed. It started as collecting together a few potentially connected thoughts on the off-chance that I would end up able to draw some kind of linguistic conclusion. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

    Which probably goes to show that if you don’t know where you’re going, you usually end up somewhere else.

    Author: don't confuse the narrator

    Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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