English basics: Words

The word is the most basic element of our language, the atomic unit of language that has some meaning. Words are composed of only two sub-elements: vowels and consonants.

What are vowels? The simple definition is a, e, i, o, and u. Here is a more precise definition from Wikipedia:

A vowel is a sound in spoken language, pronounced with an open vocal tract so that there is no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, where there is a constriction or closure at some point along the vocal tract.

Vowels are the key building blocks of most English words. There are only 127 words in the Scrabble dictionary that have no vowels; 107 of these include y. Conversely, there are only five words that are all vowels (aa, ae, ai, oe, and eau).

What are consonants? The simple definition is all the non-vowels. The more technical definition is a speech sound produced by occluding, with or without releasing (p, b, t, d, k, g), diverting (m, n), or obstructing (f, v, s, z, etc.), the flow of air from the lungs. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of consonants:

In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the upper vocal tract, the upper vocal tract being defined as that part of the vocal tract that lies above the larynx. Consonants contrast with vowels.

Good grief! Can you imagine the geniuses way back when coming up with those definitions and selling them to academic authorities who blessed them as the standards?

What are the most popular letters in the English language? Although the answer varies depending on the context of the analysis, the result will come out something like the distribution-of-letter frequency shown in the figure below.

Letter frequency in English (Wikipedia)

It is important to know this information if you work crossword puzzles, solve cryptograms, play Scrabble, or watch Wheel of Fortune. It is also worth knowing for the everyday enjoyment of English. It is easier to remember if you group the letters into five sets:

  • Very frequent                       E T A
  • Frequent                                R H I N O S
  • Average                                  C L U D
  • Infrequent                             M W F G Y P B V K
  • Very infrequent                    J X Q Z

The combination of consonants and vowels into a spoken sound is called a syllable. These are the building blocks of words. Wikipedia defines syllable as follows:

A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus (most often a vowel) with optional initial and final margins (typically, consonants). Syllables are often considered the phonological building blocks of words. They can influence the rhythm of a language, its prosody, its poetic meter, its stress patterns, and so forth.

Prosody is another word for tone. For example, you can say the words what is that so that your tone implies a question, a surprise, excitement, or sarcasm. This is the prosody element of the sound.

English vowels and consonants are particularly attractive for putting together words that have teeth – in other words, for creating memorable, meaningful word usage in a specific context. While I can’t prove that English has more toothy words than other languages, I believe that people prefer to express their emotions in English rather than French. Here’s why.

Canada recognizes both English and French as official languages, and all traffic signs, menus, and public literature are exhibited in both languages. I studied French for many years in school, and while I cannot speak it well, I can understand 60% of what I read or hear. During a year I spent in Montreal, I attended a couple of professional hockey games where the crowd was largely French Canadians. Their clear preference for speaking, with one obvious and notable exception, was French. Sitting in the stands and enjoying some great hockey, I had to strain to understand the people around me except when they used profanity.

It struck me as trés odd that when they cursed, they used English expletives exclusively. I think this was because the folks who invented the King’s English took great care to create profanity with consonant and vowel sequences that people love to say. Start with a hard opening constriction; follow with a soft middle sound; and close with a hard constriction. All of our fun-to-say profanity follows this common pattern. (Consider the old George Carlin routine about the seven words you can’t say on television.) The French (and everyone else) love to swear in English. I didn’t hear anyone say merde, which sounds too subtle and soft and romantic. You just can’t match the joy of expressing emotions with English expletives.





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