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Vowel disorder – a background on five important letters

They stop our words becoming unpalatable, unpronounceable mouthfuls, but how much do you know about the letters A, E, I, O and U?

For a start, very few words in our language can do without them. The longest word without a traditional vowel is ‘rhythms’, although the Y acts as a vowel here. In Welsh, Y and W both often take vowel form, making consonant clusters more common, and Slavic languages are often the least vowel friendly. For example, in the unlikely event that you want to ask someone in the Czech Republic “did you flick up?” you’ll need to get your lips around the mindboggling word “vzcvrnkls”.

In English, it’s perhaps just as well that we’re able to open our vocal tracts a bit more and embrace the transition between one consonant and the next. Indeed, vowels are so rife in our language that the Canadian experimental writer Christian Bök managed to use them as the backbone for part of his 2001 compilation ‘Eunoia’. Bök penned five short stories, each of which used only one of the five vowels. They may not be much to read in their own rights, but they make sense and you have to admire Bök’s persistence and broadness of vocabulary. I would also add that the ‘adult’ scene in Chapter U is beautifully vulgar and well worth a read if you’re not too easily offended.

Here are three things you might not know about each of the vowels:

A

• Believed to have first been represented in proto-Sinaitic script by a picture of an ox’s head
• Can take six different sounds in English
• The name of a British rock band who had a Top 10 hit in 2002 with ‘Nothing’, and obviously didn’t consider how easy it would be to Google them when selecting their name

E

• Appears in more English words than any other letter
• In Etruscan script, it appeared as a back-to-front version of the capital E we use today
• In the Iain Banks novel ‘The Wasp Factory’, troubled but highly-intelligent protagonist Frank Cauldhame states that E is his lucky number, referring to the mathematical constant equating roughly 2.7

I

• A very short and convenient way to avoid repeatedly referring to yourself in the third person
• The fifth most commonly used letter in English
• A letter now synonymous with a range of Apple products, such as the iPhone and iPad

O

• Originally represented by a drawing of a human eye, but has always been roughly round in shape
• Believed to be the most common single-letter surname, occurring commonly in Japan and Korea
• Singers Roy Orbison and Otis Redding were both nicknamed ‘The Big O’

U

• Used somewhat interchangeably with V in the Middle Ages, with V normally occurring at the start of a word and U in the middle
• Controversially sometimes used to shorten the word ‘you’
• A video went viral in 2007 showing that a number of people living in the United States of America struggled to think of a country beginning with ‘U’, with one answering ‘Yugoslavia’

All of this just goes to show that there’s more to these letters than part of the ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ rhyme.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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