Tuesday, 18 November 2014

meh moi

It’s funny how the twists of language and etymology are pulverised by convention and custom until those curious lumps are all but flattened out. English does have a lot of beautiful, virtually redundant words from Greek and Latin traditions that signify practically the same thing. There are, however, many pairs too of more recent lendings and borrowings that withdrew from English as a Germanic word, discovered by the French speaking a Celtic-Romance language as a useful term and returned to modern English under a different guise. Beforehand, it had never occurred to me to wonder why there are more than a few w-g couplings in English that essentially mean the same thing, much less that they were actually different ways of pronouncing one word that eventually took on separate connotations. There is ward and guard, warranty and guarantee, warn and garish, and even wench and garçon (both from an original word meaning outcast).
In these examples, the former from Germanic roots and the latter French, the g-sounding equivalents were reintroduced to spoken English during the Norman Conquest and gradually took on certain nuances in meaning. The French, possibly as the Gaulish that the aboriginal population did not use that particular sound, had a lot of trouble making a w-sound and so prefixed it with a g-sound to make it more pronounceable and less harsh on the ears. It might not seem like much that a given set of glyphs can be used to represent sounds in an agreed-upon manner but one that outsiders would surely recognise as anything other than phonetic and intuitive, but that abiding is pretty remarkable. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a whole host of not invented languages, but rather invented but Greco-Latin based alphabets, like runes (used for inscriptions only as the Germanic peoples were functionally illiterate), Gothic, Glagolithic, Cyrillic, and many others. From an aesthetic standpoint, of course I think that this diversity is a beautiful thing—but from a practical point of view, when writing was dismantled by trade and kept the same to facilitate that same commerce, it seems a little… meh… maybe just adding to the babble and otherness. I never reasoned, however, an alphabet would be designed to give speakers the means to express sounds not present in the derived, given form.
The Greeks and the Romans used the Phoenician alphabet just off the shelf, however, and just changed what sounds the letters represented to suit their way of speaking. Originally, the writing system that the Phonetians used was something called an abjad—that is an alphabet without vowel sounds represented, only consonants and the reader would know the appropriate ligatures by context—and the first letter Alef, which became Alpha and the Letter A did not make that sound (or any sound, as a glottal stop) at all.