or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Changing the Subject

Yesterday I had a day off and spent part of it reading up on vowels--well, who wouldn't?--and diphthongs, which is to say doubled vowels in which the sound changes in the process of moving from one to the other. (The vowel sound in "boat" is not a diphthong, because it's simply a long "-o-", but that in "lout" is, because its shape, which is to say the shape of the mouth, changes in the process of transiting between the first and last consonants. We think of "lout" as having one syllable, and it does, but it also sort of doesn't, a little bit, because the mouth is doing quite a lot of work in that short space. Diphthongs can fall into a grey area sometimes. Look at "flour": same diphthong, but does it have one syllable or two? And what about "flower"? Obviously two syllables. But the two words are pronounced very similarly; at what point does one syllable become two? The diphthong blurs the line.)

Of course I began to wonder if there might be glides consisting of three vowels, or triphthongs--there are--and then I found myself wondering if there were even four-vowel glides.

The first word for such a thing that popped into my head was "quadriphthong", though of course that can't be right, because all words containing "-phth-" are Greek, and "quadri-" is a Latin prefix, and we don't want to concoct a macaronic when there are more legitimate ways of assembling the word. The Greek version is "tetra-", and so the word, if it existed, must be "tetraphthong". And then I decided I needed to make up an example.

If we allow that "glowy" is a word, and I can't think of any really good reason that it shouldn't be (it is assembled using the basic parts and rules of English and it fills a need, albeit a slangy one), then we may as well go further and permit the comparative "glowier", and if we do that, then the next step is the superlative, "glowiest", and there is your neatly diagrammed tetraphthong: the vowel sounds "oh-ooh-ee-eh" in succession, distinctly articulable but all flowing seamlessly into one another.

The trouble is that most linguists would probably consider this at best a pair of diphthongs, because that "-w-", the clipped "ooh" sound, isn't really quite a vowel: it's a sorta vowel, sorta consonant, neither fish nor fowl, which (along with "-y-") is sometimes called a "vocoid" to relate it to but separate it from the vowels. In other words, in "glowiest" we don't really have four independent but interconnected vowels in a row: we sort of have two pairs, broken apart by the consonantality of the "-w-".

Still, I like the idea that there's something as baroque and elaborate as a tetraphthong (and I like the name of it, too), so I think I'll just pretend that it exists.

"Diphthong", in case you were wondering, is assembled from "di-", "two", and "phthongos", "sound, voice", and likewise with "tri-" and "tetra-" and presumably beyond, so if you can even imagine, let alone contrive, some vowelly Hawaiian ululation with seven continuous changing sounds in it, you may call it a heptaphthong, and good for you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not quite sure how Sequoia falls within this system, but it's certainly prettier than glowiest!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 5:27:00 AM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Nice catch! But "sequoia" has both of the vocoids in it, so they break up the flow of the tetraphthong even more than that of "glowiest". It's more or less "see-kwo-yah", two distinct vowel sounds broken up by the semi-consonantal sounds of the vocoids, rather than a smooth flow of four vowel sounds. To my ear, anyway.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 8:29:00 AM  

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