Lingua-U Letter No. 1: The Vowel Aɪ

vowel1-aiToday we begin to look at language through the eyes of babes, starting with one of 12 important vowels. These are not just any vowels, but the only vowels in Lingua-U. We will be looking at the first letter of the language and its sound symbolism in English.

The Letter AI

The first letter of Lingua-U is  │(Subtle Energy Character Set), or AI (upper case) or aɪ (lower case).

It is pronounced as the dipthong /aɪ/ in the chart of vowels described by the International Phonetic Association (IPA), It begins with /a/, the open front unrounded vowel. This sound is /a/, a highly uncommon sound among American English speakers. In the chart of vowels by the IPA, /a/ appears at the extreme lower left, in the open row and frontal column.

Let’s start our investigation of sound symbolism by reflecting on two of the attributes of /aɪ/: frontness, and openness/closedness.

Frontness (X-axis)

The frontal nature of /aɪ/ means that to make the sound the tongue must be positioned far forward in the mouth, but not so far as to make a consonant sound.

Scholars looking at open vowels have observed a poetic contrast between frontal and back vowels, observing that the former make “bright” sounds whereas the latter make “dark” sounds. AI is a very bright sound.

Another way to look at the symbolism of frontal sounds — a view with which I agree — is that they connote events which occur chronologically before the back vowels. The analogy here is that when the IPA chart is seen as a graph, the X-axis represents time and the Y-axis represents space. Thus, frontal vowels are “early” whereas back vowels are “late.”

To illustrate an example of this, you can look at the order of the English alphabet and note that “a” is the first letter and it so happens that the shape of the letter “a” and the sound /a/ are the same. The vowel U is the last vowel in the order of the alphabet and it is the back-most vowel. Thus, at first blush ascribing the quality of “earliness” seems plausible.

Openness (Y-axis)

As an open vowel, the tongue is placed in an extreme position: as distant as possible from the mouth’s roof. The tongue rests firmly against the mouth’s floor.

In a Biblical cosmology (as in many others), the roof of the world is sometimes called the canopy or firmament. It is the sky or heavens. The floor of the world can be compared to the ground or the Earth’s surface. Therefore the /a/ is analogous to things that are low. When space is low, it’s the ground beneath our feet.

The first letter of Lingua-U is the dipthong in which /a/ is joined with /ɪ/, the near-close near-front unrounded vowel. Thus, the qualities of openness and closedness are brought together in a unified whole. What is once the front or Alpha, is also near to the back or Omega. This is a dipthong of unusual paradox, openness and closedness together. The proper image is not that of a circle, but a spiral.

The Sound-Meaning of the First-Person Self

There are exactly seven words out of the 100 most frequently used which contain this dipthong: “I” (No. 20), “by” (No. 29), “like” (No. 65), “time” (No. 68), “write” (No. 73), “my” (No. 81), and “find” (No. 91).*

First, what is our initial impression of the seven words?

mans-eyeWe might say that “I,” “my,” and “by” are about the first-person perspective on the self and its essential relatedness to other things. The word “like” continues this theme, denoting a friendliness or affection between self and other. The word “time” relates to the continuity of events from past, present, to the future — a continuity which is frequently seen as belonging to the self (a fact that has vexed Buddhist philosophers especially so). The word “find” relates to the loss of relationship and the self’s effort to reunite with that “my” which has been lost. The word “write” relates to the activity by which the self uses symbols to express itself.

Let us now make a further assumption about sound symbolism, one which I believe to be on sound footing by extending the work of MIT-trained linguist Margaret Magnus who has extensively studied phonosemantics in English and other languages. Let us say that the symbolism of dipthongs is described as a sequential story in which the moment described by the first vowel is concluded by the moment described by the second. Thus, in our present investigation, we will say that the symbolism of /aɪ/ is equal to /a/ + /ɪ/.

Now we can formulate a hypothesis that goes roughly like this:

/a/ is a symbol of the first-person perspective of the self in its inherent relatedness to the other, specifically existing as an outward-directed orientation in relationship to an inward-directed orientation of /ɪ/. There is no first-person perspective or other without /a/ and /ɪ/ in combination; both are required for either to exist. The self  /a/ seeks what it “finds” in /ɪ/, creating “I” and simultaneously its “my.” The /a/ is the arrowpoint of “time” directed to the telos /ɪ/. The /a/ is always in space “by” its location  /ɪ/. The /a/ uses words to “write” itself alive, generating /ɪ/. The /a/ enjoys that which it “likes,”  /ɪ/.

Remember that /a/ is an open frontal vowel and note that /ɪ/ is a near-close near-front vowel. Given what we said earlier about the X-axis and Y-axis of cosmology, it would appear that selfhood and its location in space and time are symbolized in English as frontal things, which are related to brightness as opposed to darkness and early rather than late processes.

Given the widespread symbolism of the Self/Ego as the Sun, the brightest object in the sky, the symbolism appears congruent at first glance. Also, given the symbolic link between Time and the Alpha and Omega points there is also consistency with /a/ as the arrowpoint of time in its movement from an open station to a close station. In this reading, if Time is seen as moving from a state of opening to a state of closing, then there is harmony with the symbolism of speech production in the mouth.

In conclusion, our look at the sound symbolism of /aɪ/ with consideration of the kinesiology of its production in the mouth and the semantics of the English words with which it is most closely connected suggests that the sound of this letter tells a story about the self (“I”) and its place in space (“by,”) its dislocation and search for reunion (“find,”) with its possessions or properties (“my,”) a journey which occurs in time (“time,”) and in thought (“write;”); also, it’s about a simple positive feeling, (“like,”) at the core of its essence.

In subsequent journal posts, we’ll be looking at the rest of the vowels and consonants of Lingua-U as well, as part of a preliminary investigation into their sound-meanings.

About Kalen O'Tolán

Kalen O'Tolan is one of the Hanimwaa, an Immortal being who has served humankind quietly for more than 2,000 years, descended from the Son of Orr in the Third Wave. He is a philosopher, poet, and warrior. The story of his life, death, and return is told in The Kalendar, a series of fantasy/adventure books created in partnership with the Poet and Tangent Publishers.