Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Names of Letters

In English, the names of (some) vowel sounds are given by a smaller subset of those sounds -- so "A" involves one of the pronunciations of "a," ditto "E," "I," and "O," with the exception of "U," which by all rights ought to be "oo" instead of "yoo." Let's just chalk this up to the Y-as-an-assistant-vowel phenomenon, whereby the "U" in words like "cute" or "fume" is pronounced "yoo." And "I" is a dipthong, but that's neither here nor there.

Consonants are generally either given by a pronounciation of a consonant plus a vowel ("B" = "bee") or a vowel plus the consonant ("S" = "ess"). "W" is weird, as is "H," "Y" is and always shall be a mess. "Q" is, surprisingly, not bad; even if it slights the typical sound of the consonant -- arguably, so does "C."

Consonants are even harder than vowels to articulate completely in isolation, so it seems obvious that you need SOME vowel with the consonant. But why do some letters get the vowel in front and others the vowel in behind? And while most letters get the short e in front or the long E behind, this isn't universal - "J" and "K" could just as easily by "Jee" and "Kee" (assuming that "G" was "ghi" or "gay" or "goo" or something else).

You could say that as a general rule, names of letters avoid being homonyms with meaningful words, but "B," "C," "J," "P," and "T" violate this rule -- in the case of "B," pretty drastically.

I'm willing to entertain the possibility that there is some partial motivation for the sounds we use -- maybe "M, "N," or "S" appear more often at the end of words than other letters, so they get known by an end-consonant sound.

Think with me -- imagine an alphabet where all the names of consonants were reversed, so that:

"B" = "ebb"
"C" = "ack" / K = "eck"
"D" = "edd,"
"M" = "mee"
"N" = "nee"

and so on. What would be wrong with that pronunciation of the alphabet?

Cross-posted at Snarkmarket.

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