Free-Floating Hostility

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Double-U Indemnity

The Swedish academy is adding a new letter to the alphabet: W. Read about it here. The main reason, I believe, is to enable the spelling of more English words, which would seem to defeat the purpose of an academy. I posted once on Ben and Alice about my conversation with a teacher in Spain about language academies. He couldn't believe we didn't have one. "Who writes the dictionary?" he demanded. I explained to him about the OED, and when we got to Samuel Johnson he simply could not accept that one man had written a dictionary alone. He shook his head over his scotch and muttered, "Barbarians from the North."

The Swedish academy was quick to point out that W is indigenous to many other Slavic languages, and that's how I think of it, too. I associate the letter with Wagner and Warsaw and Welsh towns with unfathomable pronunciations like Llanwrtyd Wells. It has always, to me, signified remove from the Romance family. That's why I was so annoyed when my Spanish Scrabble came with Ws; I'd failed to account for there being a different version for American Spanish-speakers, the ones who say carro.

W is a bit of a sphinx, though, as letters go. It looks like two Vs, and in many languages it's treated thus, but not for us. That leads me to wonder how the sounds v and w mutate so easily from one to the other over centuries. As I sit here pronouncing them over my keyboard like I've just had a rare type of stroke, I cannot hear how they're at all similar. I've still not gotten over my initial shock the day Isaac convinced me that W should be classified as a vowel in English. Once you start thinking about it that way you'll never get it out of your mind, assuming you're at least as nerdy as me. And I really want to know how all those Gs were dropped in the transition from French to English, transforming Guillaume into William etc. Food for further thought is the fact until recently, V and U were typographically indistinguishable.

Brooklyn Dodger, I know where you're going with this and am taking this opportunity to discourage you from posting a pun on the President's nickname.

1 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at June 05, 2006 1:22 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • The gu/w thing is from earlier Germanic /gw/. French eventually dropped the labial part (/w/) (though it's sometimes preserved in the spelling), and English dropped the velar /g/. Hence garde / ward (and Italian guardia, Spanish guarda); guerre / war (which I believe is cognate with Greek phonos, "killing, murder" < bho- < gwho- , yeah, that's right, an aspirated labiovelar in yo face, mofos! . . . but that could be wrong, it's been a whole five months since Archaic Greek and all I really retain from it is a vague dread of Wackernagel's Law).

    Can't remember our "W is a vowel conversation" but I've had a few since then. Once you get turned on to the truth about W, the world is more dangerous and exciting place.

    I think the Welsh have the right idea in making W an actual double (or at least long) U, as in cwm. In English, when you come down to it, W is redundant, just like Y. I like the W sound, but you're right, Anna, she is a sphinx and woe betide the man who fails to answer her deadly widdle.

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