MY YEAR OF NEW WORDS, Part 10: PHONEMES

If you’ve ever played Scrabble or Boggle or Worded with Friends, you know there are some letters that you just can’t do much with because they don’t fit together well. This has to do with the sound shape of English and the traffic rules of English syllables. English words are not just a matter of putting letters or sounds in any old order. Syllables have onsets of two or three consonants(codas and nuclei too but we’ll stick with onsets for this example). English has sp, st, sk, sm, sn, sl, fl, fr, shr, thr, pr, tr, kr, br, dr, gr, pl, kl, bl, tl, spl, skl, spr, str, skr. But there’s no dl or tl (well, Tlingit—but that’s a borrowed name) or thn or fn or sb, sd, sg—it’s partly the phonetics of vocal cord vibration and the preference for a certain amount of dissimilarity in words. Our phonetic patterns have odd gaps too: there’s small, snail, sled but no srimp—before an r we have to use sh (and we prefer the shr combination so much that some of us use a sh in words like strength and strong).

So while there are all manner of possible misspellings and new words and phonetic combinations, new words can’t be so unEnglish that people just scratch their heads. That’s why there’s no lfat, chnutter, or thmelt in the non-words. Non-words have to wend that line between novel and unpronounceable. So we get non-words like fnast (the sound of nasal passages being cleared inward) which is based on an Old English word for sneeze). We don’t use the fn onset any more but it was once English (like, kn, gn, and hw). The word snlob, someone who is snobbish about being a slob, violates the traffic rules of English onsets a bit too much. It words as a visual joke but snl is too hard to say.
Sometimes, though, the sounds fit together perfectly. I was happy with glind (to simultaneously grind and glide), which brings those concepts together in a sexy way and also draws on the partial sound symbolism of the onset gl: glisten, glamor, gloss, gleam, glimmer, glint, glare, glitter, glaze, glitz, glory, glee and glow.

Sound structure also facilitates puns (simple wordplay creating a double meaning) and double entendre (the allusion to a disguised or absent second word and meaning). So the non-word cudgole, (to persuade someone to move along by displaying a nightstick but not actually using it) alludes to both cajole and cudgel and widle (to move with one’s widest part first) alludes to sidle but is much less slinky. Twalkers (people who walk and text at the same time and nearly run into others) plays with the funny onset tw (tweet, twit, twaddle, Twinkie) as well as the cblending of texter plus walker. And dystopia (any locale is which ritual insult is the preferred and usual means of interaction) blend dis- with –topia while alluding to dystopia.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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