Oh, man. What do you do when the going gets fast and nasty? When you can hardly get a word out, and when you do, it’s two? Imagine running for the bus or climbing up a long flight of stairs. You might fancy a bit of finesse, but that’s defenestrated in inifinitesimal time. No, you’re trying not to breathe out too hard – biting your lip, putting your tongue tongue tip to the top of your mouth – but at the last you have to open up for a moment before sighing to stop and inhaling again. Now, how do you express that?
Old English has a fantastic word for it hiding in the attic: fnast, once spelled fnæst. OK, the noun fnast can mean simply ‘breath’, yes, but the verb fnast means ‘breathe hard, pant’. It’s passed out of common usage (centuries back, in fact), but can’t we press it into service once more?
I know what the problem is. We don’t start words with /fn/. If a word starts with /f/ it has to be followed by /l/, /r/, or a vowel. That’s just a rule. The exceptions are words that we (those of us who even know them) treat as lexical circus freaks: fnarr fnarr, ftang, fhtagn…
The fnny, I mean funny, thing is that these are sound combinations we have no trouble making when we want to. I mean, most of us are physically capable of making pretty much any sound that features in any language – everyone has the same speech organs, after all – but many of us just plain can’t make ourselves do certain things. Start words with ng, for instance: the ways I’ve heard English speakers say (or, rather, fail to say) the name Nguyen are almost mind-boggling. But give just about any English speaker an old book that uses the “long s” form, which to our eyes looks like an f, and just to be funny they will readily say “ftop,” “fnort,” “fkin,” and so on. They would have trouble with Italian ſbagliato just as with sbagliato, yes; some combinations are harder. But not /fn/. It’s just something we, y’know, don’t do. Anymore.
Well, we could. I don’t see anything important stopping us. I think I shall finagle ways to utter fnast until I have finally fnasted my last fnast. As ought we all – exercise is good.
Another instance of that same cluster is fnese, the Middle English ancestor of sneeze.