Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Apostrophe is a letter and a sound, sometimes

I've just discovered a note to myself to blog about something that bugged me on Only Connect a while back. Only Connect is a BBC4 quiz programme (now moving to BBC2, which seems a shame for BBC4, but I'm not in charge of the schedules) which asks a variety of questions which all have something to do with making connections. The final round is the 'missing vowels' round, in which the answer is a word or phrase with all the vowels removed and the consonants respaced. To make it possible to answer, the contestants are told what connects the answers.

In the episode I'm thinking of, the connections was 'words that end in ii'. There was a Latin plural in there somewhere, I expect, and also 'Hawaii'. Now, the thing is, there is some controversy over this. When the islands became a state, they were the State of Hawaii in official documentation, and some people still do it this way. Others, however, now spell it with the extra symbol, and this seems (as far as I can tell) to be the way we ought to do it.

The symbol, which looks like a single inverted comma, stands for the glottal stop. We use it in English sometimes, when we write in 'eye-dialect': the word water with a glottal stop rather than /t/ is written as wa'er in lots of texts. In English, we usually don't count the glottal stop as a letter. In phonology it is a sound, so it's given much the same status as the other consonants, but replacing another consonant with it doesn't change the meaning. Wa'er and water mean the same thing. This is not to say that we only have letters for sounds that change the meaning, of course, but it means that it's kind of gone unnoticed for a long time and I suppose we just never got round to representing it, or felt the need to.

In the Hawai'ian language, on the other hand, the glottal stop is really considered to be a consonant in the language, and the letter is part of the alphabet. I realise that it's quite hard to find four words that end in ii, and Hawaii at least used to, but it seems like a programme that prides itself on being intelligent and pedantic ought to get things right.

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