Thursday, March 07, 2013

E

The letter E is the most frequently used letter in the English alphabet by a wide margin—12.7% of all letters. No other letter cracks even 10%. Without it, we would have to speak Nglish. Some want to do without it, you know—some refuse to acknowledge the awesome power of the letter E. They're called lipogrammatists, and spend their time doing things like concocting entire novels specifically omitting it (Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, perhaps the best-known example). Elvis Presley, of course, recognized E as the king of letters and used it for his first initial. (In fact, Elvis is arguably the more supreme king because he could have dumped it and gone as Lvis, whereas the letter E really needed the support in the mid-20th century, before electronics breathed new life into it. More on that in a moment.) The letter E is also highly intelligent. Everyone knows that E = mc2. As a vowel, not only does it take on all the usual burden of these overworked signifiers for vocal intonations—playing it long, short, and all manner of gently keening and/or grunting sound in between—but it furthermore signs up for a giant portion of work in a "silent" role, sitting at the end of a word to tell one how to elongate the vowel in front of the consonant in front of it. This busy beaver is also seen taking position behind certain consonants to soften. (Examples: use, wide, gently, entire, recognize, certain, supreme, have [kind of], done [well, not exactly], gone [oh, forget it]). We liked the lowercase version of the figure so much that we turned it upside down to indicate the schwa, an "uhh" sound that could itself be the most frequently occurring vocal sound in the English language. Pay attention to how much people say it all the time, within or without words. Well, the electronics industry really did the letter E a big favor, didn't it? In the past 20 to 30 years it has taken on a high profile as one poster child for computer and online culture, perhaps most notably as "email" (does anyone spell it with the hyphen anymore? that would be an N-ormous relief). I've even had periods when I've personally considered E among my favorite letters. Certainly I can say that it is my favorite vowel by a good sight. Because of the mysterious Great Vowel Shift, which set in along about the 14th century, and proceeded inexorably across the next three or four centuries, it sounds more like the I of most European languages and less like the way we presently pronounce A, which is the sound other European languages make with E. So confusing. How do these things happen? Something to do with the Black Death, I understand (note to self: avoid). Now here's something strange. The letter E does not appear in the standard letter-grade alphabet, which of course goes A, B, C, D, F. I do recall hearing an explanation once that it formerly used to indicate "E for effort" but was still a failing grade, a kind of de facto F+. After the way I complained about the D, can you imagine what I would have to say if that was still going on?

4 comments:

  1. Speaking of Gadsby...

    The original Wetzel edition is now available at the Internet Archive (sans the Modernist cover).

    Or you can look for it at Amazon's Kindle Store (complete with a behind-the-scenes essay, Skipping Fifth).

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  2. The enigmatic journey through the ABCs continues.

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  3. Dylan, thanks for the extra Gadsby links!

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  4. Ee bah gum [as mimetic expression of surprise at significance of the letter 'e'.....]

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