Mark Twain was quoted to say . . . “What is the real function, the essential function, the supreme function, of language? Isn’t it merely to convey ideas and emotions? Certainly. Then if we can do it with words of fonetic brevity and compactness, why keep the present cumbersome forms?”
I think this quote is quite fitting of the following subject of my current ramblings. I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Twain. I don’t wish to see our words changed for the sake of brevity and compactness as some would seemingly like to do, as is illustrated by the bombardment of text-speak and the changing definitions of pre-existing words – the dictionary now says the redundant and annoying use of irregardless now means regardless.
I value words, their form, their substance; I don’t want to see them changed. Sadly, at least to me, shortcuts and text speak are insidiously sneaking into our everyday vernacular in both spoken and written words. That being said, there are many words, debatable words, we already accept and embrace that are the epitome of phonetic brevity.
Disclaimer – While I love and adore my words as they are, I must admit I often wonder why the creators of them spelled them as they did – Weird and wonderful are the words I adore.
I was compelled to compile a sampling of some of these phonetical words when I started thinking about words in the English language without any vowels. I think about weird, wordy things often. Whether or not there are in fact English words which contain not a single vowel is an interesting conundrum, one often argued among linguists and lexicologists.
The most cited example of a vowel-less word is crwth, not an English word actually; it is a Welsh instrument resembling the violin or a noun referring to music, according to Random House Unabridged.
Another word without vowels is again, a Welsh word, cwm. A noun meaning valley in Random House and a noun meaning steep bowl-shaped hollow occurring at the upper end of a mountain valley, especially one forming the head of a glacier or stream, as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
There are other words though, words much more familiar for those of us who do not play the crwth or live in a crw. Colloquial coinages argued ad nauseam by wordsmiths and wordies. Words or words not, they are indeed found in print and have also found their way into our everyday speech. Questionable perhaps, but there is little room to discount them as they are almost universally recognized and utilized.
One hotly debated word, yes, it has been debated hotly, is nth. Even spell check accepts this word as a word. Nth has a place of prominence as an adjective in Random House, American Heritage, Online Etymology and WordNet as, in combined definition, the last in a series of infinitely decreasing or increasing values, amounts, etc., of an item in a series of occurrences, planned events, things used, etc., that is thought of as being infinitely large, being the latest, or most recent, relating to an unspecified ordinal number: ten to the nth power. Highest; utmost ,1852, in phrase to the nth, figurative use of a mathematical term indicating indefinite number, in which n is an abbreviation for number, last or greatest in an indefinitely large series; “to the nth degree”.
Random House Unabridged and the American Heritage dictionary both include the word psst, defining it as interjection, used to attract someone’s attention in an unobtrusive manner or used to capture someone’s attention inconspicuously. Psst has also found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
ZZZ has an entry in both as well, simply defined as sleep in the American Heritage dictionary. Zzz is used to represent the sound of a person snoring in Random House.
Also found is the word pfft. An interjection used to express or indicate a dying or fizzling out, also ft or phfft, used to express or indicate a usually sudden disappearance or ending.
Tsk is also written into the history of words in Random House as an interjection used often in quick repetition as an exclamation of contempt, disdain, impatience etc, For shame! Listed use as a noun, an exclamation of tsk. Verb, to utter the exclamation tsk. Also tsktsk. The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language has this definition, interjection used to express disappointment or sympathy. Noun – a sucking noise made by suddenly releasing the tongue from the hard palate, used to express disappointment or sympathy. In WorldNet it is represented as a verb, tsk as in disapproval. And again in the Online Etymology Dictionary, sound expressing commiseration or disapproval.
We’ve all shh’d someone before, I’ve shh’d and I’ve been shh’d, usually by the same person who tsk, tsk’d me. The entry for the shh in Random House is simply an interjection. I guess they are keeping the definition hush, hush. Hmm, or h’m is also an interjection used typically to express thoughtful absorption, hesitation, doubt or perplexity according to Random House.
Some argue these onomatopoeic words are simply expressions of sounds, not worthy of word status, but nowhere in any of these distinguished volumes did I find confirmation of this stance. I can find no true disagreement to the validity of these words. If we are basing their status solely on appearance, an argument can be made however, when they are pronounced properly, some do indeed make a vowel sound.
Another case for a vowel challenged word has been made for commonly used acronyms and abbreviations. Have you ever asked the time and had someone respond with the hour and minute in post meridiem or anti meridiem? I think it is safe to say most would answer with a resounding P.M. or A.M., both of which have entry in the aforementioned dictionaries. This would open the door for B.C., RSVP, P.S., and other common initializations and abbreviations.
I wonder if we could take it even further and include @ and & as words . . . We use them as shortcuts knowing anyone reading will say at for the @ symbol and & will be read as and. Comic strips have used these symbols for years as words in disguise. We call this a grawlix,“%#$@. I’m stretching now, I know, but then again, who would have thought zzz was actually a bona fide, dictionary bound word?
I’ve not even touched the ever controversial vowel, not really a vowel, sometimes Y. Gym, hymn, rhythm and rhyme will always be vowel words in my mind. Feel free to debate, but it’s a moot point with me. I will sum up this unusual essay with my almost hypocritical support of these odd words without vowels. I say hypocritical because of my almost universal opposition to many and most of the newer words being popularized today.
Many of the words I’ve referenced here though, I have used in both spoken and written form so I take my stand and declare them words. They may not be found in every journal of known words but they have in fact been recognized and therefore they exist. Perhaps ten years from now I will embrace words like hashtag and not feel a well of annoyance when I see LOL. I’m certain it will always annoy me when people say it though.
Crystal R. Cook