The Russians have a soup called shchi. It’s a cabbage and vegetable soup, and a staple of Russian cuisine. It’s a good soup for winter, not only because it’s warming but because you may often ask for it involuntarily.

Well, OK, in modern Russian the fricative-affricate pairing in this word has smoothened into a simple fricative, but even so it still sounds a bit like a sneeze. And in the German spelling Schtschi, it looks like one of those particularly nasty, messy sneezes, while in the Polish spelling szczi it looks like one of those sneezes that feel like an electric shock. I’m inclined to think if we didn’t have the word sneeze we could always use a word like shchi to signify it.

Well, how about an adjective – “of or relating to sneezing”? Ah, well, in fact, we have a word for that too. (We can use sneeze attributively, as in sneeze reflex, but we do have an adjective per se as well.) The word doesn’t sound so much like an act of sneezing, though; rather, it sounds like a description of the reprimand you get for sneezing without covering it: sternutatory.

Really, can you find a sneeze in sternutatory? Perhaps in the taste of sternum, which is in front of the trachea through which the sneeze passes on its way to the mouth (or is it only air at that point, becoming a sneeze when it hits the constriction of the tongue?). Otherwise, it tastes of stern, Sterno, newt, nut, neuter, and Tory. It has that arch, high-flown ending atory, so scientific or formal or mock-pompous. How ever did such a word come to refer to such a thing?

Well, it and its noun sibling sternutation (sounds like a salutation made with a sneeze, doesn’t it?) come from the Latin verb sternuere “sneeze”, which sounds a teeny bit closer; it’s cognate with the Greek πταρνυσθαι ptarnusthai, which does begin to sound like something one could sneeze out.

For me, though, sternutatory is most fun as a name for an amusing potential class of consonants. Several years ago I began writing, as an exercise in what my wife would undoubtedly call “geek humour,” an introduction to an invented language, Sclgnqi, set in almost pathologically chauvinistic and otherwise somewhat unbalanced terms. I didn’t get much past the phonemic set and the beginnings of the inflections, though that did contain some things that I still remember with amusement:

There are eight cases: the nominative, the accusative, the defensive, the dative, the negative, the genitive, the ablative, and the destructive. Nouns come in four classes based on two moieties: intelligent versus unintelligent and likable versus unlikable. All nouns are regular; the irregular ones did not survive. . . . For instance, if you had one noun in the destructive case and another in the defensive, all you would need to know is “when and for how long?” – all the rest is details.

The pronunciation guide, which I will post in full separately for the heck of it, includes special counsel on sternutatory consonants:

Note! In addition to the usual kinds of consonants possessed by any dull language – plosives, fricatives, voiced and unvoiced – Sclgnqi has an especially beautiful class of consonants sound that sets it apart from all others: the sternutative. Mandarin produces the faintest of echoes with its “ci” and “zi” sounds, but these do not produce the beautiful spray that Sclgnqi sternutatives make. A speaker of a dull, flat language such as English can only hope to simulate the sound of the Sclgnqi cs, cz and kt with the aid of pepper and good chest muscles. To produce a proper cs or the best imitation of which you are capable, position your tongue as if you were to say the zz in pizza, and then force all the air in your lungs out within a quarter of a second. An involuntary vocalization usually accompanies. For cz, clench your teeth as if biting down hard on a delicious cznqgt (a pastry never matched in any other country) and trying to say ch as in choke at the same time, then expel all the air in your lungs in a quarter of a second. An involuntary vocalization usually accompanies. To pronounce kt, position your tongue fully against the roof of your mouth as though about to shout with all dignified hatred, Kill Vlksnk Glnat! and then expel forcefully all the air in your lungs and all the saliva on your tongue in the time it takes to drive a knife into a cow that is being held by two of your strongest friends. An involuntary vocalization usually accompanies.

Clicks schmicks. Give me sneeze, please!

6 responses to “sternutatory

  1. Pingback: An Introduction to Sclgnqi: Pronunciation Guide | Sesquiotica

  2. OK, yes, in the piece on Sclgnqi I called the class sternutative, not sternutatory. Certainly sternutative sounds more like a manner of articulation in phonological terms. But sternutatory is the word we use in English normally (inasmuch as we use it normally); sternutative is a rare synonym.

  3. BTW, sternutatory consonants would not be quite the same as ejectives, since the airstream initiation would be different (pulmonic rather than glottalic). I’ve been meaning to do ejective since Avatar came out, and perhaps it’s time I got around to it.

  4. Pingback: ejective | Sesquiotica

  5. Pingback: affricate | Sesquiotica

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