Never Trust a Vowel

Vowels are shifty things. I teach literature, and when people have trouble making out words in the text that they haven’t met before, I ask them to try and take them apart to see if they recognize the parts; then they can guess at the word’s meaning. I teach medieval lit, so sometimes students are looking at Middle English or another older form of English, but just as often, it’s a Modern English word that’s flummoxing them, and the rules don’t change.
My reasons for not trusting vowels are:1. Vowels can vary from language to language, so if we know the roots of words, we can see why the vowels are what they are. For instance, Latin “e” often corresponds to Greek “o” as in English “dentist” and “orthodontist.”

2. Vowels can vary to denote tense in English. Now if we invent a new word, we just slap an “-ed” on the end of it to make it past tense, but older forms of English had elaborate systems of vowel gradation, some of which we still have (“sing/sang,” “fly/flew,” etc.). So sometimes if a word has a funky vowel in it, you just aren’t familiar with its old past form.
3. Regional accents change the vowels mostly. Occasionally there will be a consonant difference, like the b/v variation in dialects of Spanish, but usually it’s vowels. The “You say potato; I say potato” song/joke/aphorism makes this pretty clear. It’s not potato/potaco (although I’d be willing to try a potaco). It’s all about the vowels.
So if you’re trying to deduce what a word means, there’s a process I advocate, and vowels figure absolutely last, the treacherous little buggers.
First, try and figure out the root word. Take off anything that looks suspiciously prefixey or suffixey, like “-ey” or “pre-.” Then look at the root in terms of the frame of consonants, not really looking at the vowels.  So if we’re trying to deduce, say, podiatrist, we’d first remove the “-ist“ which is a clearly a suffix. It indicates a person who does the thing at the beginning of the word (like artist or philanthropist). Next we cut off the “-iatr” from Greek iatros, meaning “doctor” (as in psychiatrist), and we are left with “pod.”
Pod. Pod. So how’s your Greek? English speakers are usually better guessing Latin than Greek because English borrowed so much from Latin directly, as well as from French, Italian, and Spanish. But Greek “pod” means ‘foot.’ In Latin it was “ped.” Never trust a vowel. English has more common words with ped-, like a bicycle pedal or a gas pedal, or different animals being bipedal or quadrupedal. But “pod,” not so much. Cephalopod. Arthropod. (These are literally head-footed things, like squids, and joint-footed things, like crabs or ladybugs. But we were talking about vowels.)
And now we’re done. But consider next time you have trouble understanding a person’s accent, just relaxing your head when it comes to hearing vowels. When you don’t recognize a word you read on the internet or in a newspaper, try it with different vowels, and see if you can figure it out. I think adopting a playful, puzzler’s attitude toward language is a recipe for easier understanding, less frustration, and maybe even compassion.

The Music of a Language

I have the excellent good fortune to teach English in a department of English and Modern Languages.  This means the hall where we live is filled with people who are bilingual and multilingual. It means we have majors in Spanish as well as English, and minors, certificates, and courses in several other languages. It means I hear different languages daily, some of which I can pick out words and follow conversations, and some of which I know next to nothing and can only hear the music. This post is about why that is valuable.
Recently I had a discussion about the sounds of different languages.  You know the stereotypes—Romance languages sound lovely, but Germanic sound harsh, like you’re being yelled at. In fact, it was sparked by this meme:
In some ways that’s not wrong—languages that have a preponderance of words that end in vowels, like Italian or Spanish, sound like the words run together more fluidly, since the vowel of the last word joins to the consonant in the next word just like the syllables do in a single word. This makes the words flow together in a way that the consonant-heavy Germanic languages can’t achieve. In German or English, words more often end in consonants, which means you have to stop the flow of air more often. It sounds like you pause on purpose after each word so you can pronounce them all, and also to differentiate between words. It means you get more of a staccato, shotgun sound as you utter the sentence.
Compare, for instance, part of a line from Dante’s Purgatorio : “Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista…” (Purg. 4.40)–where every word ends in a vowel except the one that’s been abbreviated for the sole purpose of keeping the musical vowel-consonant alteration–with a line from Rilke’s “Evening”: Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewӓnder,” where the only word that doesn’t end with consonants is an article (‘the’).  Americans tend to view the Italian as more musical and the German as more aggressive, just on the basis of whether there are more vowels or consonants.
Imagine our dismay, then, when we think about English—that glorious bastard tongue of “German spoken with a French accent,” as one of my French professors used to say.  Is it German?  Is it Romance? (English has a whole lot of Latin borrowing as well, and American English is busy borrowing from Spanish as we speak.) So which is it? Both?
The difference for me is not that one is more beautiful than another. (I have heard people be very seductive and debonair in German.) It’s more that they are both musical until we know what they say.  When we have no clue, we can focus on the sound—the lilt of Romance or the rhythm of Germanic. As Jorge Luis Borges says in his gorgeous essay on his blindness, when you don’t know a language, “each word [is] a kind of talisman that [you] unearth.” Each word rings with strangeness and music, and comes out more a chant than a sentence.
This is a reason to study another language. In addition to making you more cosmopolitan, introducing you to other cultures and gaining a better understanding of your own language’s grammar, you get to experience that music. You get to enjoy the process of turning that music in to meaning. Because that’s the problem with listening to a language you already know, particularly natively:  you are so busy making it mean something, you forget to listen to how beautifully it sings.