Well, who’d have thunk it? It’s ablaut time! A what? No, it’s not “a blot,” though those new to this word might see it thus at first. There is neither blot nor blat in it. It is not, for those in music, a blah ut either. In fact, toss away all those loud or messy bl- words. You can even forget about blue, although the German word for “blue” – blau – appears in the heart of this word. But at least German is germane: this word comes from modern German, ab meaning “off” or “from”and laut meaning “sound,” and the syllables split betwixt b and l. And that laut is not a lot, not phonetically anyway – think loud (or lout). Now, does that remind you of another word? Um, let me think… Yes, umlaut. You will probably think first of two dots, like snake eyes or headlights or fang marks on top of a vowel (or perhaps puncture marks from a Spinal Tap), but umlaut is first of all what those marks are there to signify: a fronting of a vowel under the influence of a nearby vowel. So is ablaut the opposite? Well, it doesn’t have a diacritic, and it doesn’t involve the influence of another vowel, and in Germanic languages it does tend to move towards the back; that great philologist Dr. Seuss gave us a prime example: “Stink. Stank. Stunk.” But actually it simply means a change in vowel to signify a change in inflection – in English, we use it in some verbs to indicate a shift from present to past to past participle, but other languages use other shifts for other changes. It’s no longer “regular” in English, and so we would not expect it to get new use, but it still occasionally does, sometimes to the dismay of those who see language more as a weapon than as a toy: bring > brung and dive > dove are examples that get up some people’s noses. They see them as a blot on the language – indeed, who’d have thunk it?
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