Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Story of “Er”

[The Unspell Crowdfunding Campaign is in its second week. Over $5k has already been raised, but at this rate it seems unlikely to hit its target of $50k, so please help spread the word.]

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Once upon a time Western Europe was a land of clear consonants and pure vowels. People would fill their lungs and shout to each other over great distances—across rivers and valleys—and understand every word. But then, just as one Western European nation after another was embarking on an empire-building campaign, something very strange happened. You see, they had to distinguish themselves somehow, to confuse and frighten each other, but the European Parliament hadn't been invented yet, and so they couldn't exercise their precious ethnic differences simply by talking a great deal of nonsense. They had to achieve the same effect through more traditional means: by distinguishing themselves in manners, attire and speech. In the case of manners and attire their approach was quite traditional as well: they cultivated a pompous and arrogant demeanor, and they sported crazy hats and lots of frills and embroidery. But in the matter of speech the way they chose to distinguish themselves was decidedly strange. I call it the Battle of Speech Impediments.

The Portuguese were probably the ones who started the fray by switching from ‘s’ to ‘sh’ whenever possible. Whenever the Portugueshe opened their mouthsh their enemiesh ran for the hillsh. Not to be outdone, the Spaniards responded by developing a frightening lisp, and started saying Tharagotha instead of Saragossa. The Dutch response was to cleverly turn a problem into a solution. Their problem was that they lived in a swamp while breathing smoke from the peat moss they burned to keep from freezing in winter. This caused them to constantly cough up phlegm and clear their throats, even in mid-sentence. Their solution was to incorporate this incessant throat-clearing into their language, saying “kh-kh-khood” instead of “good” and so on, achieving an effect that was truly terrifying. The French innovated even further by switching over to a complex system of gargles and honks. These were lethal at close range, but made shouting in French an exercise in futility, since it is physiologically impossible to project one's voice through one's nose while gargling. Not to be left behind, the Germans got rid of a lot of their ‘r’ sounds and instead learned to dislocate their jaws, snapping them back and forth ever so efficiently and precisely, being clever to do it in such a way that it did not interfere with their shouting. “Deutsch ist sehr schön wenn es laut gesprochen ist,” a German once told me very loudly. But anyone who attempted to imitate them ran the risk of chipping a tooth.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, similarly odd developments were afoot: the English learned to curl their tongues backwards, and replaced the usual, trilled ‘r’ that is found in the vast majority of the world's languages with an upside-down-and-backwards ‘r’ called a retroflex approximant. The IPA symbol for it is ‘ɻ’. It is clearly upside down and backwards, plus it has a little hook to indicate that it involves doing unnatural things with your tongue, namely, curving the tip of the tongue backward toward the palate. That is quite a trick! We do not know how many Englishmen died from choking on their tongues while trying to learn it.

What we do know is that, of all the fashionable speech impediments affected by the Western Europeans, this one is by far the most debilitating. This is because it is physiologically impossible to combine the retroflex ‘ɻ’ with most vowels: ‘oɻ’ and ‘aɻ’ are possible, but ‘eɻ’ ‘iɻ’ and ‘uɻ’ all end up as the same sound, the IPA symbol for which is ‘ɝ’. Moreover, even ‘oɻ’ and ‘aɻ’ tend to only occur in a stressed syllable; when unstressed, they too end up as the same sound, the IPA symbol for which is ‘ɚ’, called a rhoticized schwa. The term “rhoticized” is named after the Greek letter rho—ρ, and the term “schwa” is a catch-all term for “indistinct vowel”.

All of these different vowel+‘r’ combinations once sounded different but now all sound the same. Nevertheless, they are still preserved in English spelling, like long-extinct insects eternalized in droplets of amber. The only place where they can still be heard is Scotland, which never shifted from its trilled ‘r’. In Scotland, “fur” and “fir” sound distinct; everywhere else they sound the same. And so it tɝned out that [w]ɻitten English is littɚd with coɻpses of dead vowels, which must be pɻesɝved in memɚy by all those who aspiɚ to being considɚd litɚate by theɚ bettɚs.

The upside of that is that a new vowel was born, the beautiful English vowel ‘er’. But it would appear that some people do not appreciate its beauty, and use it in expressions such as “herp-derp” and “hurr-durr,” which signify anything from lopsidedness to ineptness, brutishness and imbecility. I believe that this is wrong: if you happen to have a giant horn sticking out of your forehead, then you might as well call yourself a unicorn and claim to be magic.

To be fair, this new vowel is not without some shortcomings; for one thing, it is almost impossible to shout with one's tongue halfway down one's throat. This is why the British gave up on the standard international military cheer “Hurrah!” (which, some suspect, came from Mongolia with Genghis Khan) and switched to shouting “Huzzah!” instead. Imperial troops are not supposed to sound like little animals that are trying to growl while being choked. Moreover, since curling one's tongue backwards is a rather taxing operation, there is a tendency for the tongue to cramp up and get stuck in the retroflex position for extended periods of time—something linguists call rhotic harmony. The ultimate result is a dialect called Ermahgerd. Here is the result of feeding the beginning of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address through the Ermahgerd Translator (and cleaning up the result by hand, since the translator is a bit “derp”):

Fershker ernd servern yers erger er ferthers brerght ferth ern thers kernternernt, a nerw nershern, kerncerverd ern lerberter, ernd derderkerterd ter der perrpersershern thert erl mahn er crerterd erqerl.”

We do not know whether Abraham Lincoln sounded quite like that, but then he was from Illinois, which was at the time not far from the bleeding edge of civilization, and so there is a good chance that what he spoke was Frontier Gibberish—a dialect that exhibited pronounced rhotic harmony.

Meanwhile, back in England, the British decided that Frontier Gibberish was unbecoming of their various and assorted imperial majesties and dropped the little rhotic tails from ‘ɝ’ and ‘ɚ’, de-rhotacizing their speech to the greatest extent possible. They also started insisting that what they have is not a class system but a “clahss” system, a bit like the “cahste” system of the Hindoos. I suspect they discovered that curling their tongue like that all the time interfered with shouting, because, you see, the British were doing a lot of shouting at the time, there being so many different peoples for them to be shouting at: the Hundoos, the Chinamen, the Kaffirs...

This change was propagated to most British colonies. It did not catch on in Ireland or Scotland, and affected only the Eastern Seaboard of North America. To this day certain Bostonians are attempting to “Pahk theah cah neah Hahvahd Yahd” (which is, by the way, the most futile pursuit imaginable). The rest of the country laughs at them. But then the out-of-towners do not ever seem able to figure out which subway stop could possibly be pronounced “Gumincenah” and keep getting lost, so maybe the Bostonians will have the last laugh.

Perhaps the English did manage to claw back a bit of linguistic sanity by chopping those irksome little tails off ‘ɝ’ and ‘ɚ’, perhaps not. But the damage had already been done: when the English switched from ‘r’ to ‘ɻ’, lots of vowel+‘ɻ’ combinations decayed to either ‘ɝ’ or ‘ɚ’, and when the English subsequently chopped the tails off ‘ɝ’ and ‘ɚ’, the vowels remained dead, or, rather, undead, because they are still being preserved as orthographic vestiges. And there we have it: there are three different ways to write ‘ɝ’ and five different ways to write ‘ɚ’. Everyone has to memorize these distinctions without a difference. You might perhaps think that there is something wrong with this scheme, and perhaps you'd be right. Herp-derp-hurrah, everyone!

[For those who are learning Unspell: ‘ɝ’ is ‘D’ and ‘ɚ’ is ‘d’. Rhotacize or de-rhotacize them as you wish. That's all.]


Chris Burch said...

So when I read aloud a piece of Unspell text written by a Bostonian, I will end up sounding like a Bostonian? Sounds...entertaining.

Dmitry Orlov said...

No, Chris, you will end up sounding like an intelligent, well-educated you!

William Hunter Duncan said...

No wonder, the more disenchanted with my culture I become, despite that I have written at least a million words in my life, I can't seem to spell sometimes. I keep spelling it how it sounds. I thought I was getting old or c-nyl, but maybe I'm just evolving :)


Ronald Langereis said...

Very funny piece, Dmitry, but whatever the spelling there still remain these pesky differences of pronunciation. I'm from cough-Holland-cough, my in-law is from Arizona. Once, from my roof terrace, we were looking at some triangular, yellow flags in the distance, bearing a text I couldn't read.
"I think it's the lahdah," she said.
It took me a moment to transmogrify this gibberish into Dutch: The Lotto, indeed!

Spanish fly said...

The oldest name for Saragosse was the latin Caesar Augusta; then, Arabs said "Saraqusta". When cristian Aragonese came to conquer the town, they wrote "Çaragoça" like Catalonians and French, they used ç.
Medieval pronuntiation woluld be like a german "z" in "Franz".
OK Dmitry, then there was an empire and a chovinist National Academy for the spanish language...and Ç were forbidden (too french, maybe). Now, there is a lot of "th" in spanish.
I wish you good luck in your crussade against spelling.
My best regards from "Tharagotha", Spain.

RaySch said...

I hope you are taking note of the comments. I grew up in a German community, and I too suffer from not speaking Standard American English. I am trying to learn unspell, but have a bit off a problem choosing the proper glyph. Until the advent of the unspell app, are you planning to publish some exercises for practicing reading and printing in unspell? I could certainly benefit from having some paragraphs in English that I would copy into unspell, and then compare my text with the unspell of the paragraph in Standard American English to help catch any problem areas. The same exercises could be used in the reverse order as well.
What is your take on the classification of unspell? Is it like spelling where you need to know the proper pronunciation of the word to render it properly in unspell so that respell can type it out in English for you? Or is it akin to shorthand where you just try for an approximation of the word so that when you go to type it in English or have someone else read your printing, you will know the words from the context?
Keep going on the project; it’s a good idea.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Ray -

There are some conventions for writing Unspell. Mostly they have to do with adhering to Standard American English or British Received Pronunciation, which will be the main two varieties Unspell will initially support. The conventions will be easiest to pick up by reading, so the first thing for me to get done is to unspell some reading materials. I am working on a 5000-word initial unspell dictionary, which, when finished, will be used to unspell a variety of texts.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Ronald -

I can see how she gets "lahdah" from "lɔtoʊ" The initial "ah" is via cot/caught merger, accompanied by father/cot merger, whereby [ɔ] becomes [ɑ] possibly by way of [ɒ]. The 'd' is actually [ɾ], which is a dental flip and erases the distinction between [t] and [d]. The final "ah" is an unstressed vowel reduction, [oʊ]->[ə]. These are all phonological transformations which are automatic and unconscious, and are learned automatically and unconsciously. They differ from one dialect to another, and even from one speaker to another, but the underlying phonological form of the world is 1. the same and 2. has little to do with how the word is spelled. In Unspell, the word is "l-ɔ-t-oʊ".

Dmitry Orlov said...

William -
You wrote: "I keep spelling it how it sounds." Well, that's perfectly normal. Only about 20% of the people have the strange trait that allows them to "hear" different spellings. They find English spelling easy; everyone else struggles with it to one extent or another. Normally, this sort of synaesthesia would be regarded as a mild neurological disorder (hallucinated sound differences based on visual stimuli) but English spelling makes it an adaptive trait.

Coilin MacLochlainn said...

I don't know how useful this Unspell thing will be, but the contents of your blog and video clips up to now have been uniformly educational and inspiring. I will be sorry to see the end of your wonderful work in this area, teaching communities how to live sustainably, growing their own, bartering and so on. Is the great Dmitry now trying to make a quick buck before the ship goes down?