thinking about language and order
By the time we are two years old, we have been introduced to the concept of order in language via the alphabet. Toddlers struggle to sing the "alphabet song" from memory, even if they think that "ellenemopee" is one big long letter! No matter. What counts is the concept of making a list whose elements always come to us in the same, comforting, predictable sequence. Just like numbers.
Elsewhere, in alphabetical disorder, we discuss in detail an oddity concerning the alphabet. Paradoxically, there are no organizing principles to the alphabet itself, which is what makes it so good as a random system. Why does -A- come first and -Z- last? Why does -O- come after -P-? Nobody knows. The answers are forever clouded by time.
The good news: anyone who knows the alphabet can find the definition of anything in a dictionary. The bad news: because the ordering principle is the relative order of the 26 letters of the alphabet, dictionaries become random repositories of knowledge. That is, things that would be grouped together by any other system are scattered far and wide in a dictionary.
Hand tools, for example--hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, allen wrenches--are less organized in a dictionary than they are in your garage. Baseball, basketball, football, tennis, lacrosse, volleyball, sepak takraw (look it up!) are all ball sports. If they were all next to one another, it would be a relatively simple matter to compare them for playing surface, rules/violations, strategies. The alphabet is the enemy of such comparisons.
vowels, consonants, problems
But what does that have to do with the speech sounds of English?
We recognize that there are two basic kinds of sounds in English: vowels and consonants. They are the meat and potatoes of language, so to speak. Why then, don't we put the beef, pork, and poultry in the Meat Department and the onions, mushrooms and collard greens in the Produce Department, instead of sprinkling them throughout the alphabet?
No one thinks that we should teach children their AEIOUs instead of their ABCs, of course. But really, why aren't the vowels together in the alphabet? If vowels are a real thing, there ought to be a reason for separating them from consonants. Could there be other, more useful arrangements of the letters in our alphabet?
Let’s try and answer what looks like a simple question: Are the vowel and consonant sounds of the English language a part of any kind of system?
If you are ready to stop thinking like an English teacher for about an hour, pour yourself a fortifying beverage and click here.
**Did you ever wonder why the alphabet song is set to the same tune as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?