gyttja

Oh, man, this word looks like something that could get ya stuck in it; in fact, it sort of looks like it’s stuck in something, with those descenders down in it. Some people might think it has no vowel until the end – although actually y in this case represents a vowel. Which vowel? Well, that muddies the matter a bit. Generally dictionaries (those that include the word) will say you should say it like “yit-cha”, though I note that Agriculture Canada puts it down as “yut-tya”. What’s with the difference – and what’s with the glide at the beginning?

Ah, well, you see, this word is one that has settled into English from Swedish, and, honestly, it’s not completely assimilated (for the simple reason that it’s not a common word – its gluey appearance may or may not have to do with that). In Swedish, the y represents what [y] represents in the International Phonetic Alphabet: the same sound as German ü – a high front rounded vowel, which we don’t have so we have to pick the front or the round, [i] or [u]. And before high front vowels in Swedish, g stands for a glide, [j], same as we normally write y. The j in Swedish also stands for the same sound, but with the addition of a [t] it becomes an affricate.

So, to ordinary English eyes, this word would be better as yitja, but the i has become a t and there’s that g there. But, no, actually, the word is akin to Swedish gjuta “pour”, and there has been no migration. And this word, that looks as though consonants have settled together and the vowels have mostly floated out, this word that involves compressions and constrictions with the tongue, is a word for a kind of mud.

Mud? Oh, for Pete’s sake. No, actually, for peat’s sake. Gyttja is a sort of peat – it’s the sediment of life at the bottom of a pond: plant matter, dead microbes, fish poop (whether or not the vowels have moved, the bowels have). It’s rich and organic and is a sign of a productive, lively pond. If your name is mud, make it this kind of mud… and you won’t have to settle for anything, because it’s already settled for you.

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