Name a tree that has all five vowels in it.
Well, I kind of gave that one away, didn’t I? It’s the title of this word tasting note – today’s word to taste. It’s a seven-letter word, and the only two letters in it that aren’t vowel letters are s and q. Seven letters makes it a possible bonus word in Scrabble – but it’s not really all that long a word given that it names a very, very tall tree. (A longer word for a larger tree, also having all five vowel letters, is Indo-European… but of course that’s a language tree, i.e., a family, not an actual physical tree.)
Still, it’s fairly comprehensive: its consonant sounds involve the tip of the tongue [s], back of the tongue [k], blade of the tongue [j] (that’s a “y” sound; I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet), and lips [w]. And the vowel sounds are one in the front, one in the back, one in the middle.
So did you notice how I just listed four consonant sounds and three vowel sounds? And yet this word has five vowels and two consonants.
No it doesn’t. It has five vowel letters and two consonant letters. The u and i are standing for glide consonants, which are pretty much vowels acting like consonants or consonants that sound like vowels…
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have all five English vowels. Actually, it can’t have all five English vowels, because English has more than five vowels. The six letters that can stand for vowels – don’t forget y – stand for, depending on your dialect, ten to twelve different individual vowel phonemes (monophthongs), plus several two-vowel combos (diphthongs) (some of the monophthongs tend to be said with some movement, making them really diphthongs, but I won’t go into that now). So my opening sentence was not accurate. Always remember: vowels and consonants are sounds, not letters. The letters just represent the sounds. The language exists without its written representation; the written form can have a feedback effect on the spoken language, but it is not primary.
And, in the case of English, it’s rather difficult and not all that transparent. It has some relation to sound, but it’s inconsistent and capricious. If you want to know how it got that way, read “What’s up with English spelling?” The point, anyway, is that while it’s a fun game for those who are good at it, it really fights the learner.
Consider the case of the Cherokee nation in the southern US in the early 1800s. They did not have a written form for their language. But one of the Cherokee, a clever and somewhat driven fellow, decided that it would be very helpful to them to have one. They were trading with white English speakers, so there was an example of a written language – albeit one that the particular Cherokee in question did not speak or read. He tried at first to come up with a written form that would have a different symbol for every word, but this took too long and would require too much memorization, and anyway his wife burned his efforts because they were keeping him from working. So he tried again, this time creating a syllabary, borrowing some forms he had seen in use in English (but with no relation between their English use and the Cherokee use) and inventing a number of others, for a total of 86.
Cherokee syllabics were not systematic like the Korean or Amharic syllabic forms; they were an arbitrary-looking set. But they represented the language quite tidily, and once a Cherokee learned them, he or she was fully literate: there were no booby-traps in the spelling, and they all knew how to speak the language (and no fools had taken it upon themselves to publish works declaring that they were all speaking it incorrectly). So once the Cherokees adopted this syllabary officially – because they could see how useful it was – they had higher literacy rates than the whites in neighbouring communities, who were afflicted with the perverse English orthography.
The Cherokee who invented this syllabary – which you can see at Wikipedia and various other places – was named Sequoyah.
Coincidence? Or is the tree sequoia named after the man Sequoyah? It’s debated. In fact, the Wikipedia article on the tree declares it very likely that Stephan Endlicher, the botanist – and linguist – who named the tree in 1847, did it in honour of Sequoyah, using a Latinized version of the name, and considers alternatives with some thought and detail, while the Wikipedia article on the man Sequoyah declares flatly that “this hypothesis has long been questioned and has now been rejected” – yet another illustration of why you should not take a Wikipedia article as final authority on anything, useful though it may be.
Whatever the case, I think this word sequoia is a good word for talking about language and spelling, and the vagaries and variations available therein. But since I like finding extra layers of meaning and levels of communication in language, I have an inclination to lengthen this word by half, to make it a bit more sesquipedialian – literally ‘foot-and-a-half long’. It has seven letters, so we’ll round up and add four more. Which four? I’ll say s, i, t, and c, and I’ll interleave them in the word, one after se, one after qu, one on either side of i. And what do I get?
Sesquiotica, of course.
Thanks to my brother, Reg, who brought up the link between sequoia and Sesquiotica. In case you’re wondering, sesquiotics is actually a pun on semiotics, and Sesquiotica a pun on the international journal of semiotics, Semiotica. In which, incidentally, I once published an article.