Monday, August 15, 2011

Letters and Vowels

There are words, syllables, letters, and vowels. Words are comprised of syllables, and syllables are comprised of letters. Letters are strung together to form syllables, which form words. Letters strung together do not, of themselves, determine the enunciation of a word. Letters hardly admit of enunciation at all, without supplementation by vowels. Vowels therefore hold the key to the enunciation of a word, conceived of as already consisting of a particular string of letters.

At the same time though, vowels are not integral components of words, as letters are. They merely make manifest the intended interpretation of a word’s letters. They indicate the patterns into which the component letters of a word enter (or fall). Of course, I’m not referring to the vowels per se. They are mere symbols. They symbolize the underlying sounds-enunciations. It is the sounds represented by the vowels that do the work of demarcating the syllabic structure of a word.

Syllables are of two kinds, open and closed. With an open syllable, the sound of a vowel trails; with a closed one, that of letter (consonant) does. However, even a syllable having a trailing vowel may be closed, if it is directly succeeded by an accentuated letter. In that case, the preceding vowel closes the syllable (to which it belongs) off.

Vowels are of ten kinds. Five of them are big; the remaining five are small. Apart from these, there is an eleventh vowel: the sheva. Whereas the ten basic vowels each define another form of enunciation (which is a modification of the enunciation of a letter), the sheva occurs where distinctive enunciation is intended as being bypassed. In other words, the occurrence of a sheva indicates something of a neutral enunciation, one that does not render the affected letter’s enunciation distinct.

We have just been told that the sheva represents a neutral enunciation. However, we have not been told what this means. As it transpires, an enunciation, as indicated by a sheva, may be neutral in either of two senses, varying with the context (situation). It may be neutral in the sense of being minimal, showing no articulation beyond the basic requirements of enunciability. On the other hand, a sheva’s enunciation may be neutral in the sense of standing for a null sound-value. Here there is no enunciation to be discerned at all. Each of these has its legitimate uses.

However, for the moment, we shall want to close on this note.

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