Fables of Linguistics
The Story of the Weak Vowels
The Tale Teller of Tollerton Town
Whose is that voice in the distance, singing?
The Tale Teller of Tollerton Town!
But it’s more of a growl than a clear tone ringing—
Though admittedly he’s been up dale (and then down).
He’s been telling tales since before the beginning,
Though he makes it all up and he can’t really spell—
And most of his Tales deserve a good binning.
But he’s here now! I wonder what Tale he will Tell.
Once upon a time in Vowel Town, a wide-open space next door to the busy, noisy, clucking and clicking of Consonant City, there lived a happy community of vowels. Some were quite open and were unafraid to discuss their feelings, while others were relatively closed and kept stuff to themselves. Some were quite forward and would ask you how much you earned and what party you tended to vote for; others were rather backward and didn’t own a TV, let alone have Wifi. Some were low, a touch depressed (despite living in the wide-open space). Others, as one often finds if one travels around, were high.
Now every so often the vowels from Vowel Town would toddle over to the busy, noisy, clucking, clicking Consonant City and combine themselves with consonants in one of their famous Syllable Parties. The Syllable Parties were wild affairs but the vowels and consonants were very grown-up about things and always partied in a phonotactically adherent way. Sometimes they’d just chill with a fairly relaxed (C)V([nasal]) kind of combination, but other times they’d get pretty serious, draw up some complex rules and go for a ([s])(C)(C[l/r])V(S)([s]). Wild!
Over time, of course, all these phonotactically constrained Syllable Parties led to words—and that’s where the trouble began. Some words ended up being short and others long. Inequality, after all, is a structural feature of life. But length and shortness per se are no problem, of course; it’s all about how length and shortness are perceived!
So what happened next was that the longer words started seeing themselves as more important than the shorter words. Yes, words like ‘dismissiveness’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘superciliousness’ started looking down on words like ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘to’, ‘the’, ‘her’ and, one of the shortest words of all, ‘a’. The longer words grew richer, fatter and better fed, and unfortunately became very self-satisfied, even starting to call themselves ‘content words’. Meanwhile the shorter words ended up having to do all the work, and they became known as function words.
Now the long and the short of it is that although the vowels had once all got along with each other (as had the consonants), and everyone had got along with each other at the Syllable Parties, this brand new division of words into happy content words and working function words really set the cat among the pigeons. The vowels in the content words were well-fed and strong and could keep making their normal sound, [i], [ɔ], [ɛ] or whatever. But the vowels in the function words were functioning all the time—cleaning cars and operating lifts—and they got weaker and weaker. They could barely articulate themselves at all.
Of course they tried vocal solidarity, gathering together to try to agree on a shared vowel sound to save energy. But no-one could agree on what the solidarity sound should be: the [a] vowels wanted everyone to be [a] while the [u] vowels wanted everyone to be [u]. You know how it is!
Finally, the structural imperative took over and the vowels in the weak function words gave up and lost their individuality and idiosyncrasy. Sheer exhaustion forced them to just be a boring [ə]. Low-back rounded ‘from’ ended up as ‘fr[ə]m’, jolly old high-back rounded ‘to’ became ‘t[ə]’ and some held out longer. ‘Belong’ had enough length to stay ‘b[ɪ]long’ but she certainly felt bad about it. Indeed, so weak did some of the function words’ vowels become that their consonants started disappearing too. ‘Of’, for example, withered away to simply [ə]—which was ironic, as ‘of’ was mostly used by the content words in phrases like ‘box of chocolates’. Imagine delivering a box of chocolates to a fat, overfed content word when all you can say is, ‘box [ə] chocolates f[ə] j[ə], sir.’ Awful.
The moral of the story? Maybe it’s a reminder to stay open, to live your life on a high. Maybe it’s a warning not to get weak. Maybe it’s about staying loyal to your tribe. Who knows? One thing I can tell you for sure: things were never quite the same again at the Syllable Parties between Vowel Town and Consonant City.