Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Owl without a Vowel

A discussion over at the Ken Jennings Message board has led me to dig up an old piece I composed about 10 years ago for the Usenet newsgroup, regarding the letter Y and its use as a vowel and a consonant. It's one of my favorite things I've ever written, and I present it here for your enjoyment. Quoted email addresses have been truncated by Google Groups.

From: "Myron M. Meyer (The Man Who)"
Subject: Re: word with the most consonants in a row
Date: 1997/10/09
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Subject: word with the most consonants in a row
Quoting: (Max Schmeder)
Date: 1997/10/02

Does anyone know which English word has the most consonants in a row?

thanks a lot,

Myron Replies> Problem with a question like this is that there is no concrete definition of what is and is not a vowel. In "Language on Vacation," Dmitri Borgman defines a vowel as "A, E, I, O, U, and Y," realizing, of course Y's function as a vowel in such words as "rhythm" and "bay." He then procedes to cite words in which W functions as a vowel, including the Welsh "cwm," a mountain basin, and "crwth," a Keltic stringed instrument. No fair, cry I, the exception should be made for W too. It functions as a vowel (consider it a double-U-as-in-vacuum for pronunciation purposes). Look also to the common English word "cow" for a much more readily accepted occurance.

For the rest of this message A, E, I, O, U, W, and Y, will be considered vowels. B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, and Z, will be considered consonants. Look at words such as "walrus" and "youth" when considering our problem children.

Quoting: Philip Carter
Date: 1997/10/02

How about latchspring or catchphrase ?
Philip Carter

Myron replies> Thank you for playing Philip, for these are indeed the most common 6-letter consonant strings in English, and as long as you can get without being obscure. Borgman also cites "welschmertz" and "Houyhnhnms."

The uncommon record is shared by three words:

wppwrmwste - an old spelling of "uppermost",
Nosmnbdsgrsutt - the land of flying people in "The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins..." (1751) by Robert Paltock, &
Pyrzztchwll - a fictional surname in Rodale and Fluck's "The Phrase Finder" (1953)

all with 9 consecutive consonants.

Quoting: (Laura M Parkinson)
Date: 1997/10/04

I think the longest word with only consonants is "rhythms" but I'm not sure if it's also the word with the most consonants in a row, or not...

Myron Replies> Now we get into the tricky (heh-heh) world of alphabetical transgenderism. Are W and Y vowels or consonants or both? The answers are "yes," "no," and "so's yer old man!" First I will say that whatever status is applied to one of these letters must be applied to the other. Second, as demonstrated above, these leters can function as both vowels and consonants, even within the same word (see "wow" and "yesterday.")

A similar problem was posed to this newsgroup earlier this year. On 4/5/97, Todd Gregory posted

"Can anyone think of a word in the English language which is composed solely of 5 consonants?"

with the word "crwth" in mind. (There is much debate on Usenet as to whether "w" is a vowel. To find it, use the word "crwth" as a search variable on Dejanews.) Many folks (myself included) posted such words as pygmy, gypsy, and nymph, making the assumption that Y is a consonant, which it is. In these words, however, Y acts as a vowel. Or, should I say, "is a vowel." Later discussion emerged as to crwth's Welsh origins, and how it ends up in the same category as pygmy, et al. Or as Philip Carter responded to this thread:

"It depends whether or not `y` is considered to be a vowel in such a word."

That's right Phil, and you are now two correct out of two in this thread. All the hard questions get routed directly to you.

Quoting: (Max Crittenden)
Date: 1997/10/06

Please. I hate to be snippish, but the Y in "rhythms" is a vowel, no question about it.

Myron replies> Exactly right.

Quoting: "Myron M. Meyer (The Man Who)"
Date: 1997/10/07

But the question is, longest word with only consonants, not the only word without vowels.

Big difference.

Y is also a consonant.

Myron replies> Also exactly right. But unlike Crittenden's point, this one has many questions about it.

First of all, Meyer is correct that there is a difference between all consonants and no vowels. The lists of consonants and vowels are not mutually exclusive. They overlap.

Second, yes, Y is a consonant. And Y is a vowel. And "rhythms" is a peculiar word in that it is a seven letter word, composed entirely of consonants, and containing one vowel. This is the important part, the leap of faith you must buy in order for the entire argument to work. Y can be both a consonant and a vowel IN THE SAME WORD. I would consider Y to always be a consonant (as per Wheel of Fortune), and sometimes a vowel, in words such as "rhythm." If you disagree, then the argument falls apart right there. If Y or W, in a specific word, must be either a consonant or a vowel, Y or W cannot be both. My argument falls apart, given this assumption.

There was an episode of the instructional program "The Letter People" regarding just this point. Mr. Y was debating whether to hang with the consonants, or go with the vowels. I last saw this program 15 years ago, and I have no idea what he decided. John Thornton might know.

Quoting: (Steve Derby)
Date: 1997/10/08

[regarding Critenden's Y point]
True, but if you count Y are there any words in the english language that don't have vowels? 'Syzygy' would fall into that category as well.

Myron Replies> Just those pesky W's, as near as I can tell. Note that if you consider Y and W consonants only, Pyrzztchwll has no vowels! None!

Date: Tue, 07 Oct 1997 13:31:21 -0800
Quoting: (Max Crittenden)

Ah, I see. We're talking semantic chicanery. OK, two can play that game. Y is also a fork in the road, and a place where you can get a cheap room for the night. Are you saying that "rhythm" _also_ contains a fork in the road and a place where you can get a cheap room for the night? I sure hope not.

Let me rephrase my earlier statement. Y _can_ be a consonant _or_ a vowel. In "rhythm" it is a vowel, not a consonant.

Or, even if you insist that Y is a vowel _and_ a consonant, I think you're still hoist on your own petard: "rhythm" is _not_ a "word with only consonants", because it contains Y, and you just admitted that Y is a vowel.

OK, I'm enjoying this. Myron, your shot.

Myron Replies> Logical flim-flam-ery it is! I am reminded of the section in one of Lewis Carrol's "Alice" books, in which someone hold a discussion on the difference between what your name is and what you are called and what your name is called. I remember it from Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, which, of course, is locked at the Augustana College library safe from my little (HA!) essay. The point is, if you are a consonant but are called a vowel, you are still a consonant. That, of course, is my necessary presumption, as I stated above.

And if Y is a fork in the road, and RHYTHMS contains Y, then RHYTHMS contains a fork in the road. That's a basic syllogism.

As for the longest word with no consonants and no vowels, it's the sound of one hand. I'm going to bed.


Myron M. Meyer
The Man Who