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Category: Language

Up Close and Alphabetical
When I’m on the road with my live “Eaganblog Intergalactic” tour, I am always struck by the number of young people who approach me after a concert asking about the alphabet, especially the individual letters. “What is L really like?” they might ask, or “Is O a total zero?”

While I appreciate the enthusiasm these kids have for the language, I have to laugh at such questions. Do they really think that I have met letters of the alphabet and talked with them? Do they imagine we hang out together in Cabo or frequent the same exclusive Greek island? People can be so silly.

On the other hand, I do have a few friends in the larger community of pictograms, digraphs, and glyphs. The circles that actual letters run in are a bit too rarified for a humble blogger, or even for me. Still, I hear stories. I don’t like to repeat rumors, or to talk about anything of which I have no direct knowledge — but, of course, I do.

That said, here goes. I don’t really have the space to take on all twenty-six letters, so why don’t I just start with the first five? For those of you who can’t remember the lyrics to “The Alphabet Song,” these are A, B, C, D, and E.

First is A, because A wouldn’t have it any other way. A has always been jealous of its position at the head of the line, and it bristles at the slightest suggestion that it is not the best, the brightest, the most accomplished letter of the alphabet. This brittleness can make A seem cool and aloof at times (like most type-A personalities), and it does not make friends easily. Despite its standoffishness, however, most tend to cut it a break because it’s a vowel. The real jerks are mostly thought to be consonants.

Not B, though. It is a well-liked letter, and it presents a much different picture than A in other ways as well. While A is in tip-top physical shape, B looks like a D tied in the middle. I don’t know if there’s a word for that protruding shelf of blub below a too-tight belt (a “subgut?”), but B has a particularly big one. But we are not going to obsess over appearances here (next blog, I promise). No, we will simply say that B has a great personality and is considered by many to be the funniest letter (as we have noted here before). For instance, just say the word “boob.” Your lips automatically want to form a smile, don’t they?

I’m not sure, but I think that C’s image is fraught with ambiguity. To some, it looks like a failed attempt to make an O; to others, it’s a lovely crescent moon. Still others see a self-important parenthesis. All I can see is that barbed hook at the top (at least in this font); it’s an accident waiting to happen. When asked for a response to this controversy, C answered that it had “mixed feelings.”

Like B, D struggles a little with its weight. The difference is that D cuts a more portly figure — not so much fat as big. Furthermore, it doesn’t care; it is among the gentlest, most sweet-natured — and least neurotic — of letters. I should say, though, that it is also one of the least bright. Dupe, dope, dip, dimwit, dingbat, doofus, dummy, dolt, dork, dweeb — it’s no coincidence that they all begin with D. As does diss, which is why they are known as the ABCs, not the ABCDs. D, of course, is just too nice to make a fuss about it.

That brings us to E, perhaps the most misunderstood of all letters. Most people assume, I think, that E is popular among its peers. It is, after all, used more than any other letter in the formation of words. Some, however, have suggested that its willingness to hook up with any letter, any time, make it promiscuous. There is also wide resentment for the silent E, which many see as evidence that E has some terrible secret to hide. All this has led to a deep distrust for it within the alphabet itself. In truth, E is a sad, shy letter in spite of its fame, and it prefers to keep to itself outside of the workplace. My guess is that it actually prefers the shunning it receives.

Again, this is all just gossip. I have never actually met a letter (though I did see M in an airport once…what a slob!). It is quite possible that none of this loose talk is true, and that it represents nothing more than vicious rumor-mongering by some spiteful ligature or envious Cyrillic wannabe. I don’t know, and what’s more, you don’t care. The point is, I made a blog out of it — and that’s all that matters.
To a T
I guess I’ve always been a late night worrier. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Some things need to be worried about, after all, while others are a waste of time. Maybe you know how it is… you wake up at 2:30 a.m., and your mind is seized by some thought, or notion, or problem that will not go away. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be sure, at that time of night, what needs the worry and what doesn’t.

It happened again last night. I must have spent an hour and half fretting about debuccalization. That’s right, debuccalization. Specifically, I was tormented by what I saw as the plague of t-glottalization that seems to be infecting our language.

Debuccalization, as you know, is the sound change a consonant undergoes when its method of articulation is changed. T-glottalization, in particular, is the debuccalization of a perfectly good /t/ into a gagging sound involving a closure of the speaker’s throat.

The word “button”, for instance, is now pronounced “buh-un” by most Americans. That’s bu⟨ʔ⟩on if you’re into phonetic notation. The /t/ all but disappears in the spoken version. The culprit here is laziness. People (including me) find it easier to simply close the glottis than to press the tongue against the front of the palate and then release it. Tuh — it’s just too hard for us, I guess.

I can’t help but feel sorry for the /t/. Even though I have been a party to its disrespecting, I find it alarming that there are two /t/s in button, yet neither of them is being pronounced. Button isn’t the only such word, of course. There’s also flatten, or fla⟨ʔ⟩en, ki⟨ʔ⟩en, ro⟨ʔ⟩en, Manha⟨ʔ⟩an, mu⟨ʔ⟩onchops, and so on. Single /t/s are not spared, either. Mutiny has been mu⟨ʔ⟩ny for a while, and even gluten (a word only recently become commonplace) is now being pronounced glu⟨ʔ⟩en.

What’s worse, the problem has gone beyond mere t-glottalization and expanded into across-the-board debuccalization. “Don’t do it” has become “Dohn do it.” Dot com is now “Dah com.” The path that /t/ is on, I fear, may lead it all the way to terminal lenition. No, I’m not kidding! What concerns me, now and at 2:30 a.m., is that the /t/ has been so weakened by lazy articulation that it is marked for extinction, at least as a spoken letter.

Oh, we still have “butter,” even in the same universe with bu⟨ʔ⟩on, (though we pronounce it “budder”). Twitter has escaped, too, as have titter, tatter, and teeter-totter, but who knows when they will go the way of Christmas, mortgage, often, and gristle?

Think of it: there may come a day when a rat fink will be an ⟨ʔ⟩a⟨ʔ⟩le⟨ʔ⟩ale, when delicate arousal will be ⟨ʔ⟩i⟨ʔ⟩ilashun, and when ⟨ʔ⟩or⟨ʔ⟩elini will be your favorite pasta. All because we’re too lazy to ⟨ʔ⟩ouch our ⟨ʔ⟩eeth with the ⟨ʔ⟩ip of our ⟨ʔ⟩ongue. The letter itself may even come to be pronounced ⟨ʔ⟩e. To the untrained ear, that would sound just like /e/, for God’s sake! It would be chaos — and perhaps a bellwether to the coming collapse of the alphabet itself!

Is it any wonder I lie awake at night?
c/o me
Quoth the poet:

A fie on the slash!
Death to the diagonal!
They’re invading our language
It seems by the wagonful

I’m taking suggestions
To replace them with words
(You know those things…
The nouns and the verbs?)

So sharpen your wits
And crank up the diction
Send me the cure for
This linguistic affliction

I’ll be here waiting
Until they arrive
The Wave
I can pinpoint the moment of my awakening to a single event. It was 1982, and I was in my Toyota Longbed, backing out of my spot in a dusty roadhouse parking lot somewhere in Texas. We’d just stuffed a quick meal and were about to resume our straight-through journey back to California from New Orleans.

I’d just about completed my maneuver when I checked the rearview. Another roadhouse customer had also begun to back out, and he was headed right at me. I could see his wrinkled old red neck through the rear window of his beat-up truck. I was helpless, frozen in space, and he was going to back right into me! No! I felt the anger well up inside me, the regional prejudice, the ageism, the righteous indignation.

That’s when it happened. He stopped, just inches away, when he finally saw me. Then he raised his hand and gave me a little wave. Miraculously, all the frustration and badness drained away. In its wake came feelings of relief, yes, but also of well-being…and of brotherhood with the old codger who’d almost clobbered me.

That is when I first awoke to the power of The Wave. It’s such a simple gesture, yet so powerful. In that situation, it simply meant “My bad,” but I doubt that a signed note of apology on high-quality stationery could have had the same effect. The feeling it produced in me lasted all day. In fact, it’s lasted for over thirty years now. During that time, I have become more and more of a waver myself, and I have taken more notice of others doing it. The variety of its uses in human interaction is remarkable.

I don’t know, but my guess is that we are the only animals who communicate by waving. Birds and fish wave all the time, of course, but that’s for purposes of locomotion. The human wave carries a message, and that message is almost as variable as the social contexts in which it is used. It can be the codger’s apology. It can be hello, or good-bye, or thanks, or no thanks, or a here I am, or never mind, or I’m okay, or you’re okay, or that’s enough. If you’re the Queen in a parade, that little tick-tock motion says, “I acknowledge your adoration, and you may look at me.” If you’re a kid in a parade, it means, “Look at meeeee!” The meaning of any wave is mostly contextual, and for some reason that makes the message clearer than clear. None of those verbal translations would carry the weight or the inspire the same depth of understanding in the viewer.

The uses of the wave are so diverse, so universal, in fact, that for most purposes we might be able to abandon the spoken word. We’d still need writing, of course, for things like explanations of privacy policies and Ikea instructions, but I think the wave could well supplant everything else and leave us in a quieter, more peaceful world.

If you agree, just give me the high sign, my brother.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee