or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, December 16, 2007


It's so easy to imagine that the letters we see on the page are actual representations of sounds and not just symbolic stand-ins, isn't it? Of course you make the sound that looks like "f-" by resting your top teeth on your bottom lip and blowing air through them! It's obvious!

Except, obviously, that it isn't. All spelling is merely a convention, something we more or less agree on in our particular dialect of a language. There are consonantal sounds in English that have been the same since Roman times and before, but that doesn't change the fact that they're essentially symbolic.

I was reading "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman, a non-fiction book about what would be left in our wake in the years to come if the human race simply disappeared. (Plastics and industrial chemicals, mostly; some of them are going to be around for a long time.) Near the end of the book there's a scene set in the Pacific nation of Kiribati, and I vaguely remembered having read that in the language of that island nation (actually a series of atolls), "-ti" is pronounced "-ss", so the island's name is pronounced "kih-rih-bass", more or less. (It seems strange, but not that strange; after all, in English, "-ti-" is often pronounced as "-sh-", in such words as "pronunciation", and "-si-" may be pronounced "-zh-", as in "persuasion".)

A few pages later, the author is discussing one of the islands, which is called Kiritimati, and naturally any English speaker is going to pronounce that in five short syllables. But then I recalled again that "-ti-" is "-ss-", so I sounded it out; "kih-riss-mass". Oh, hey, I thought; that's Christmas!

It is indeed Christmas Island. It would have been fantastic if the Gilbertese name for their island just happened to sound like "Christmas" to English ears, but if course it's the other way around; Captain Cook landed there on December 24th, 1777, and naturally enough called it Christmas Island, which the locals transliterated as "Kiritimati".


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