Fun with the English alphabet

Here’s one for you: say the alphabet out loud, as usual making sure to name the letters rather than sounding them out (as in, “ayy” for A, “bee” for B, “see” for C etc.).

You’ll find that every vowel only sounds like the way it’s used in conjunction with the ‘magic E’ or ‘special E’ (however you were taught it in school): that is to say,  A is pronounced the way it is in “bake” or “cake”, not like in “back” or “cat”; E sounds like “bee”/”see” rather than “bet”/”set”, I sounds like “die”/”pie” rather than “dig”/”pig”, O sounds like “rope”/”hope” not “rot”/”hot”, and U sounds like “tube”/”crude” rather than “tut”/”crud”.

Meanwhile, among the consonants, if you say them in the way of the Queen’s English/Received Pronunciation, or even Standard American, then H and W are the only letters whose ‘names’ give no indication and are really nothing like their sound (R as well in English pronunciation). Most consonants indicate the sound, like D being “Dee”, and even calling X “eks” or C “see” indicates their usage in may frequent cases (e.g. box = boks; ceiling = seeling). But, we call W “double yoo” and H “aitch”.
Interestingly enough, (at least in England) calling H “haitch” is often deemed a sign of a lack of ‘education’ or ‘class’, even though, for the purposes of indicating a letter’s sound, it’s actually more useful than “aitch”.

The case for W may be contested, as it was David Crystal who argued that a “w” sound is the result of an extremely shortened “u” (“uu” or “oo”) sound. For example, sound out “uuitch” “uarm” or “ooait”. You probably said “witch”, “warm”. and “wait”. So, the name “Double U” for W could be argued to be an indicator of its pronunciation, if only vicariously through the pronunciation of U.

In SE England, Australasia, and South Africa, we also call R “ah”, which gives you no indication as to how to pronounce a word like “red”. Meanwhile in America, Northern and Western UK, and Ireland, it’s “arr” (or “orr” in Ireland), which is much more helpful. However, you could point out that calling R “ah” correlates with its usage at the end of a word, as in RP we also say “bah”, “cah”, and “fah”, while they’d call it “ar” and say “bar”, “car”, and “far” in the wider anglosphere.

I have deliberately avoided Y in this post. Its vowel/consonant status is always debated and I thought it would screw up my findings. But strangely, calling Y “why” does indicate its usage at the end of a word in the same way as in the cases of X and R: “fly”, “sky”, etc. So it does fit into that consonant category (for the purposes of this exercise) in that its ‘name’ does sound like its usage, at least for about half the time, but it’s still problematic because it gives no indication of its usage as a consonant. “Why” doesn’t tell you at all how to pronounce “yes”, or “yellow” – but it does tell you how to pronounce “dye” and “lye”. In that sense, it better resembles a vowel.

SO “why”, “eks”, and “ah” are a little bit weird, but it’s “double-yoo” and “aitch” that are the real odd ones out.

[If you’ve got through this post you can probably see know why I called it the “English” alphabet and not the “Roman” alphabet; it’s about our specific usage of Roman letters in English.]

So that’s what I’ve stumbled on today… what I can’t tell you is why. Why do the vowels sound like they’re in conjunction with E,* rather than alone? What makes H, R, W, X, and Y so inconsistent with their names? As a matter of fact, who actually names letters, or how organically do these things evolve? Who decided that Americans would start calling Z “zee” while Canadians would inherit the British “zed”?
Dahned if I know.

*now that I think about it, words like “cake”, “see”, “pie”, “note”, and “tube” are actually far more consistent in pronunciation across the broader anglosphere than “cat”, “set”, “pig”, “not”, or “tub”. Don’t believe me? Try saying the latter set of words in Yorkshire, Canadian, South African, and New Zealand accents and you’ll see immediately.

JH

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