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Re: Why Consonants?

From:H. S. Teoh <hsteoh@...>
Date:Friday, February 16, 2007, 20:06
On Fri, Feb 16, 2007 at 02:03:45PM -0500, Leon Lin wrote:
> Hello, > > It always seemed to me that vowels are more distinct and clear than > consonants (does everyone agree on this (imagine talking and listening > over a phone with static)), but many languages have evolved to using > consonants as the major indentifier for words. Here are some > observations:
Vowels are more prone to change. Well, at least for most of the languages I know. :-) Consonants are more resilient to change over time. Consonants' POA (point-of-articulation) are more well-defined than vowels, except perhaps for apical vowels ([a], [i], [u]): vowels have a lot more freedom while retaining more-or-less the same quality, which probably explains why they are more prone to change.
> 1. Vowels are smaller when writing, it can be seen that the vowels > aeiou all stay between the baseline and the midline (ok, well maybe > the dot of the i doesn't), but many consonants have strokes jutting > out all over or under: bdfghjklpqt
This is only a peculiarity of the Latin alphabet. Wait till you see Cyrillic vowels...! Here's a sample if you have a Russian font installed: а я е э и ы о ё у ю ъ ь. (There are others that aren't used in Russian, with more peculiar shapes.) Note the use of the digraph ы for a single vowel. ъ and ь are silent in Russian, but are historically vowels. Or, for that matter, look at Pinyin.
> 2. Recognizability: take out the vowels: Mt m t th clbhs tmrr(w)... or > take out the consonants: ee e a e uoue ooo (OK, so English vowels each > have more possible sounds than consonants, but that shows even more > that people think consonants are more important. Even if I used IPA > or something else, I think the consonants would still be easier to > read) Originally: Meet me at the clubhouse tomorrow.
This appears to be because there tend to be more consonantal phonemes than vocalic, so leaving out consonants gives you much less information than leaving out vowels. As for why natlangs tend to have more consonantal phonemes, my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that vowels tend to change faster and merge into indistinct sounds over time, so that consonants give more reliable "landmarks" for determining word shape, and thus consonant distinctions are more likely to be retained.
> 3. Writing systems: abjads leave out vowels. Are there any systems > that leave out consonants?
[...] I don't know of any, but I'm sure interested to know if there are! T -- The right half of the brain controls the left half of the body. This means that only left-handed people are in their right mind. -- Manoj Srivastava


T. A. McLeay <relay@...>
R A Brown <ray@...>
Leon Lin <leon_math@...>