Wobble Talk And Fighting Words In English

by Kevin Burton

   Here’s one subject that never came up when I was teaching English in Mexico – thank God!

   In English, when you see the vowel combination “ae” how do you pronounce it?

   This was brought to my attention on an otherwise glorious Saturday morning by our friends at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The “explanation” below has tested the friendship.

   For “ae,” the dictionary doesn’t have any weird little songs such as  “I before E except after C or when it says “ay” as in “neighbor” and “weigh” (the helpful “ie” or “ei” spelling rhyme) to help us along.

   You language people will see what I did there, by using the word “weird” in that last sentence. You probably also know what a diphthong is. 

   To the non-language person however, diphthong sounds like an insult of the baser sort, an epithet amounting to fighting words. I assure you it isn’t. Here is an explanation from the dictionary:

   “For the non-linguists out there, a diphthong is, in simplified terms, a sound made by gliding from one vowel sound to another within a single syllable. When linguists talk about such sounds they talk about the articulatory position—that is, the positions the lips, tongue, etc. have in making the sound. To make a diphthong, the articulatory position changes in the course of the sound. We use diphthongs all the time without thinking about it.”

   “Compare, for example, the vowel sound in the word cat, which is not a diphthong, with the vowel sound in the word cow: to pronounce the latter word, most speakers follow the consonant with the vowel sound in cat gliding quickly into the vowel sound in coo. That \a\ to \oo\ glide occurring in a single syllable is a diphthong. The other common diphthongs in English are the vowel sounds in toymy, and view.”

   Got it? 

   Hawaiian has the most diphthongs, 12. Spoken Portuguese sounds as if it has a lot. I just think of it as wobble talking.

   OK, so how does that help English speakers deal with “ae”?

   “The letter combination ‘ae’ isn’t common in English. And in the cases in which it does make an appearance, it behaves inconsistently,” the dictionary says. “It says one thing in algae, another thing in aesthetic, and still another in maestro. What’s a person to do?”

   “Have no fear: your dictionary is here to help you.”

   “A bit of background: the ‘ae’ in these words comes from a Latin diphthong that linguists believe was pronounced like the English long I, the vowel sound in my. Latin was spoken for a long time, though, and there’s nothing a language likes better than change. That long I sound for ‘ae’ didn’t stick around. Eventually, the sound merged with the Latin monophthong long E, which eventually became the English vowel sound in me.

   “The long E sound is the one we have in a number of Latin-derived English words spelled with ‘ae’:

algae (\ˈal-(ˌ)jē\)

Caesar (\ˈsē-zər\)

aqua vitae (\ˌa-kwə-ˈvī-tē\)

arborvitae (\ˌär-bər-ˈvī-tē\)

antennae (\an-ˈte-nē\) (The zoological plural; radios have ‘antennas.’).

   “However, that older long I sound also survived in some English words, likely aided by the study of classical Latin by English speakers. In most cases, it shares territory with the long E; a number of English words with ‘ae’ have dual established pronunciations in good use:

alumnae (\ə-ˈləm-(ˌ)nē\  or \ə-ˈləm-ˌnī\ )

larvae (\ˈlär-(ˌ)vē\ or \ˈlär-ˌvī\ )

lacunae (\lə-ˈkyü-(ˌ)nē\  or \lə -ˈkü-ˌnī\ )

Bacchae (\ˈba-ˌkē\ play or \ˈba-ˌkī\ )

   “The word maestro (\ˈmī-(ˌ)strō\), the only common English ‘ae’ word pronounced solely with a long I is an outlier, having been adopted from Italian; its pronunciation in English reflects its Italian pronunciation.

   But most of us have never studied Latin, and English has a bunch of other words with ‘ae’ that have other sounds entirely. In aegis the ‘ae’ can be pronounced as a ‘long E’ or ‘long A’: \ˈē-jəs\  or \ˈā-jəs\ .

   The second option makes good sense to English speakers, who are used to ‘E’ making vowels long: think of tie and toe—and the names Mae and Rae. In a few words, like aesthetic (\es-ˈthe-tik\), “ae” makes the “short e” sound in the word met.

   What’s clear once we get all this out on the page is that ‘ae’ is a confusing little unit for English speakers. It’s not commonly found in everyday English words, which means that no one can be blamed for not knowing what to do with it.

   “Now you know to check your friendly dictionary in cases where you’re not sure. And when there’s no time for that, you’ll have a good explanation for your uncertainty.”

   Thanks for nothing.    Had I stumbled through such an explanation  in front of students they would have thought, “What a diphthong! This guy doesn’t even know his native language!”

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