Thursday, October 29, 2015


Alphabetically, T falls at #20, but in terms of frequency of usage, it is #2, trailing only E. Among other things, that makes T the #1 consonant. But don't get too excited—as with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, T is unlikely to overtake E any time soon. E represents 12.7% of all letters used whereas T is nearly four points behind, at 9.0%. After that the bunching is tight: A, 8.2% ... O, 7.5% ... I, 7.0% ... N, 6.7% ... S, 6.3%, and so forth. Still, at #2, T has a grip on its destiny. As a thought experiment, I wonder how things would change if the definite article, "the," were changed to "xqz," made up of the three least-used letters. I suppose we'll never know because it has the drawbacks of appearing unpronounceable and also makes no etymological sense. We would never get used to it. Imagine encountering this sentence in a story: "Hey," said xqz handyman, "will you grab me xqz pliers over there, please." No. It would never do. For the most part, T operates as the so-called "voiceless alveolar stop," the noise made with the tip of the tongue against the region of the mouth back of the upper teeth. It doesn't seem to me exactly the most natural sound to make with a mouth, not like M or R or S (let alone H, a sound that adults make at the rate of 16 to 20 times per minute). This might explain why T arrives so late in the alphabet—it is dead last in Hebrew, for example. When H sidles up next to T, it's time to start lisping. Why is T given this assignment? I don't have time to go into that or into Thomas or thyme either. Sometimes when T and I appear together, they act like S and H (not to mention I and T): "purgation," "ratio," "Croatia." Nobody got time for that. For that matter, the whole TH mouth noise adventure is something of a peculiarity, unknown altogether, for example, in German, French, Persian, Japanese, and Mandarin. For those of us with a penchant for the square (not mutually exclusive with one for the curve!), T is one of the finest shapes to be found in the alphabet. So pleasing in fact that the T-square, an instrument or tool that enables drawing or testing right angles, was named for it. It stands on a single point, bearing its horizontal crossbar with equanimity and poise. In its lowercase form it takes on the look of the Christian cross and/or fishhooks, but it's still a pretty good-looking letter, simple, sturdy, evocative, eternally enduring, or suggesting such things. T is yet another one of those little letter narcissists that likes to double up and pal around with itself, doppelganger style. T is hardly the only letter that does so, but it shows an especial effrontery by doing so in the word "letter" itself. Tsk, tsk.

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