Friday, December 19, 2008



There exist sounds that are not used in a particular language, yet which humans have the ability to create. Sounds not in the vocal toolbox of the language, but instead left scattered about the floor of the language workshop.

There are a range of click sounds used in African languages but not in English. A variety of ch-sounds that exist in Polish but not in English. The “ch” sound in Hanukkah. [There’s that lovely bit in Stuart Maclean’s Vinyl Café stories where kids are holding up the letters spelling Merry Christmas at a school holiday pageant and saying what they stand for. M as in Mary, E as in Emmanuel...C as in Channukah, H also as in Hanukkah.]

We have silent letters in English. These represent the forgotten, the discarded, the changed sounds of words. Of the language.

Perhaps these letters exist in solidarity with concepts, ideas, or experiences which are silent, secret, hidden, repressed. The letters are the inscription of these silences.


There exist sounds not used in any language. Sounds from the alphabet of the possible. Sounds that are never used and so no letters exist to represent them.

There should be letters to mark, to inscribe these unknown, undiscovered sounds. Here there be dragon’s breath. The dragon’s vowels. There should be created the field of theoretical or speculative orthography to represent these sounds. Aphonics.

And what about the sounds that we can not yet pronounce. Let's look ahead to the future of our species, of our vocal cords, the next history of our voice boxes, to the field of cyberphonics, to the speculations of evolutionary phonics. Let's make our orthography 'next larynx capable.'

Alphabets for the far reaches of the galaxy of pronunciation.


Here’s a quote from an earlier post about silent letters:

Today, I was wondering if one could construct a story of silent letters. I was thinking one could construct such a thing in a manner similar to Bernard Shaw's "ghoti" which is a representation of the word "fish" (gh as in tough, o as in women, ti as in inspiration.)

What about the word "chemughpk"? ch as in chthonic, e as in rose, m as in mnemonic, ugh as in thought, p as in pneumatic, k as in knight? Perhaps I will write an entire dictionary of silent words, a pronunciation guide to the inexpressible and unpronounceable, to the unspeakable and unspoken.

Or maybe I’ll leave it to conceptual lexicographer, Craig Conley.



Some languages have more than one writing system. Kurdish has three, and historically even more. Each written system encodes a historical experience.

Here’s a quote from the Wiki page on Kurdish noting alphabetic persecution:

The Turkish state does not recognise the [Hawar] alphabet, and the use of the letters X, W, Q which do not exist in the Turkish alphabet have led to persecution in 2000 and 2003 (see [1], p.8, and [2]). Since September 2003, many Kurds have applied to the courts seeking to change their names to Kurdish ones written with the letters Q, W, and X but eventually failed.[1]

And more:

Kurds have been officially allowed since September 2003 to take Kurdish names, but cannot use the letters "x,w or q", which are common in Kurdish but do not exist in Turkey's version of the Latin alphabet. [...] Those letters, however, are used in Turkey in the names of companies, TV and radio channels, and trademarks. For example Turkish Army has company under the name of AXA OYAK and there is SHOW TV television channel in Turkey.

Certain letters are thus symbols of resistance, persecution, and of cultural and ethnic identity.

I am aware of my freedom to write any name that I wish. To pronounce and to make pronouncements however I want to. To spell my secret thoughts with real or imaginary alphabets. To proclaim my public ideas with theoretical sounds, hypothetical letters, or the shared vocal soapbox and common orthographopedics of the body politic.

Perhaps there needs to be branch of PEN for the silenced letters, for the people who are not allowed to write their names.


gary barwin said...

Of course, I haven't mentioned entirely suppressed languages -- their writing and and speaking. For example, it was a goal of the Canadian Residential School system to eliminate Native Canadian languages.

Jeff said...

I was thinking, yesterday, about sounds made by particular letters in the German language that don't exist in English. For example, the sound made by ö in certain German words is notoriously difficult for the typical English-speaking mouth to reproduce, at least without deliberate practice, and intent.

It hadn't occurred to me before I read your piece, but I suppose that would qualify as a "silent sound" from the vantage point of English at least, although I'm sure there are many others. It simply isn't in the vocal toolbox of the English language, as you so eloquently put it.

Just a sidenote in the much larger context of silence.

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Amanda Earl said...

loved this, Gary.