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Full text of "The Loom Of Language"

The Story of the Alphabet              79
bearing on the imperfection of all existing systems of spelling. Although
there are perhaps about a dozen simple consonants and half a dozen
vowels approximately equivalent in most varieties of human speech, the
range of speech sounds is laiely the same in closely related languages.
Thus the Scots trilled r, the U in guid> and the throaty CH in "it's a
braw bncht munelicht mcht the mcht" are absent in other Anglo-
American dialects. When a pre-literate community with a language
of its own adopts the alphabetic symbols of an alien culture it will
often happen that there will be no symbols for some of its sounds,
or no sounds for some of the symbols available. English spelling illus-
trates what then happens.
(i) Scribes may invent new letters. Thus Old English;, like modern
Icelandic (Fig 31), had the two symbols > (thorn) and 3 (etha) for
the two sounds respectively represented by TH in thin and then Our
letter J is not in the Latin alphabet, which is the basis of Western
European scripts It has acquired different values in different languages
In Teutonic languages (e g in Norwegian and in German) it is equi-
valent to our Y in Yule (Scandinavian JuT). In French it is the peculiar
consonant represented by S or SI in pleasure, treasure, measure, or
vision, incision? division In English it stands for a compound con-
sonant made by saying d softly before the French J. The initial w
(cf. waif) in Teutonic words was represented by uu (po-oo-aif) Eventu-
ally the two z/s fused to form a single letter. In Welsh spelling w stands
for a vowel sound It is now a signpost pointing to the Old English
origin of a word.
(u) Scribes may give arbitrary combinations of old symbols a special
value. This is true of the two TH sounds, the SH or TI sound in
short or nation, and the NG m singer (as contrasted with hunger). Aside
from these arbitrary combinations for simple consonants, we use ch for
a combination of / followed by sh.
These combinations and their vagaries are valuable signposts for the
home student Neither of the sounds represented by th exists in Latin
or French, the soft one (5) exists only in Teutonic languages and the
hard one (f>) only m Teutonic languages and in Greek, among languages
which chiefly supply the roots of our vocabulary The SH sound so spelt
is Teutonic. The SH sound spelt as TI (e g nation) is always of French-
Latin origin
For this reason many words carry the hall-mark of their origin
There is another way in which the irrcgulaiitics of English spelling
help us to recogni/e the source of a word Pronunciation may change m