Lingua-U Letter No. 2: The Vowel i


vowel2-iThe second vowel in Lingua-U is i, the close front unrounded vowel. In the Subtle Energy Character Set (SECS), it is Yin (╎). Its sound is /i/, a common sound in English which is most commonly spelled “ee” as in “cheese” or “ea” as in “heal,” “e” as in “semen,” “ei” as in “either,” or “i” as in “Hawaii.” In the chart of vowels by the International Phonetic Association (IPA), /i/ appears at the extreme top left, in the close row and frontal column. It appears on the right side of a pair of vowels, which indicates its unrounded quality (a quality we won’t be looking at today).

Openness (Y-axis)

As an close vowel, the tongue is placed in an extreme position: as close to the top of the mouth as possible without forming a consonant. Many linguists prefer the term “high” vowels for “open” vowels, indicating the tongue’s upward position.

Cosmologically, if /a/ is like things that are low, then /i/ is like things that are high. If /a/ is like the water beneath the Earth’s surface, then /i/ is something which reaches towards the heavens and stars above.

Frontness (X-axis)

Like /a/, the /i/ with its frontal property means that the sound of the tongue is as far forward as possible. As we noted previously with /a/, frontal vowels have been observed to have a “bright” quality of sound as opposed to the “dark” back vowels.

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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.

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Is A Universal Language Impossible?

Writing an article title with much confidence, Marc Ettlinger gives us a brief article: “Here’s Why The World Can Never Have One Universal Language”

His answer is two parts, and both of them are basically wrong. The first,

So, the first part of the answer is that the general tendency is for languages to propagate and diverge.

This is his most critical error. Ettlinger has mis-characterized the nature of linguistic processes. He pays lip service to but ultimately ignores the processes of globalization and the tendency for technology to homogenize the world into a global culture. Languages are converging, but he wants us to look the other way. Instead, he says that languages “change”.

Bull. We know that languages don’t merely “change”. They EVOLVE. They are part of this world, and this is an evolving world in which changes do not happen merely randomly and without purpose, but as part of emerging processes of a vast and often poorly-understood nature. The term “cultural evolution” is anathema in those parts of academia ruled by postmodern ideology, however.

Ettlinger picks the word “change” precisely, I’m sure, to avoid the connotation that there is some Hegelian Geist at work behind the scenes, secretly stacking the deck in favor of English and simplified Mandarin or whatever the case may be. But he does not argue his case for haphazard, happenstance “change”. He only assumes it, presumably because of his commitment to the ideology of irreducible pluralism. This is a common trope of contemporary linguists.

I am convinced that “evolution” is the better word for characterizing language transformations, but it might take some time for me to convince you if you are not already inclined to agree. As this blog unfolds, I’ll continue to share evidence showing how “evolve” is the more accurate term than “change”. But the question of “change” versus “evolution” is not an empirical one so much as an ideological one. If you are an academic disciple of irreducible relativism and pluralism, then you will never use a term that threatens the very premises of your work and may even threaten your good academic standing.

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Reading the Magical Letter Page

Until Monday when I begin the discussion of Lingua-U and philosophy, there is another important body of work that requires serious attention and study. It is the field of phonosemantics with a leading voice in the prominent and unconventional linguist Dr. Margaret Magnus.

Magnus has gifted the world with an extensive website on topics that revolutionize the study of language, or ought to, if more linguists were not blinded to the evidence she has compellingly presented. She provides a variety of resources from the scholarly (her entire doctoral dissertation at M.I.T.) to the popular (a series of informative looks at the “magical” properties of the English consonants and more).

I do not dispute her strongest claim: that she has successfully demonstrated the validity of Plato’s “Socratic Hypothesis” regarding the nature of language. This is how she tells her story on the opening page of her website:

I read dictionaries. And I write dictionaries. It was an occupation which seemed initially thrust unfairly upon me by financial necessity, one which over the years I have come to love deeply, one which I now practice fervently at my economic peril. It has taught me to experience words and language quite literally as living beings, as beings who outlive each of us, who are recording within their very selves the patterns of our thoughts, as beings who care a great deal how they are employed. I wander into their dominions ever more deeply moved, ever more faithful that there is after all a reason behind this chaos of experience….

These voyages into the forest of dictionaries have rewarded me with what for me was a major insight into how word semantics works, though, of course, my understanding of the Word continues to evolve daily. I literally begin to feel the words in a different way than I did before, and there’s no doubt in my mind that what I feel actually is there. What I see runs counter in a big way to what most linguists assume about word meaning. The gist of what I see can be stated fairly simply:

The Socratic Hypothesis

Each consonant and vowel in a language has a meaning, in the sense that every word containing that sound has an element of meaning which words not containing that sound do not have. What underlies this sound-meaning is the form of the sound, i.e. its pronunciation – a sound means what it is. For example, to pronounce a stopped consonant [b, d, g, p, t, k], you completely block the flow of air through the mouth. Consequently all stopped sounds involve a barrier of some kind. The nature of that barrier varies depending on whether the sound is voiced [b, d, g] or unvoiced [p, t, k], whether it is labial [b, p], dental [d, t] or velar [g, k], and so forth. This meaning is different from the referent, which is what we normally think of as the meaning of a word. Reference is a separate process from sound-meaning, and is layered on top of it. Reference is less central to word semantics than sound-meaning, although it is much more obvious to the casual observer. This aspect of meaning which is determined by sound lies much closer to what we call the connotation than the denotation. Sound meaning does tend to predispose referents, but does not largely determine them. That is, you can’t predict what a word will refer to based on its sound, but you can predict that a high percentage of words beginning with /b/ in every language will involve explosions, birth and loud noises. You can also predict that if a word referring to a sound begins with /b/, the sound will either begin abruptly or be very loud or usually both. Sound affects meaning in every word in every language. However, because of the way reference interacts with sound-meaning, its effect is not as obvious at first glance in concrete nouns and other words with very inflexible referents. What all the various referents or senses of a word have in common is their sound-meaning. Thus by virtue of its sound, the ‘get’ in ‘get up’ is the very same word to the English-speaking ear as the ‘get’ in ‘get away’, ‘get involved’, ‘get through’, ‘get fat’, ‘get a Lamborghini’. The glue that holds all these senses together is the meaning of the /g/ followed by the meaning of the /e/ followed by the meaning of the /t/. All of this can be and has been verified empirically by simply cataloguing the relationship between sound and referent and taking statistics.

I have come closest to this mysterious encounter with the Word by spending time within speech sounds and their relationship to the meanings of the words which they form. I am not a lone wanderer in this particular forest. I count among my more prominant predecessors none less than the gods!

So you see, I have verified the Socratic Hypothesis for all the English monosyllables in a commercial spelling checker word list. The fact that this test has been carried out on all the words in a well-defined portion of the vocabulary is important, because it constitutes scientific verification of a fact which is very central to the workings of language, and which is not in general acknowledged to be true. If only those words which fit nicely into a pattern are accounted for, you have demonstrated nothing. For example, you may show that lots of ‘gl’ words concern reflected light, but unless you show that all letter combinations are similarly limited and that other letter combinations do not contain a similar percentage of words concerning reflected light, you have demonstrated nothing, and you have no solid foundation from which to go forth and make really general and far-reaching claims about the nature of language. This Socratic Hypothesis could in principle be proven false, but can in fact be verified as true by repeatable experiments, such as those outlined at this Web site. I therefore strongly encourage readers who are at all interested in whether the Socratic Hypothesis is true to check it out for themselves. In addition, in myAnnotated Bibliography, the interested reader can find references to other accounts of comprehensive tests which have been conducted for other languages.

Explore Margaret Magnus’s website.

How does the proof of the Socratic Hypothesis inform my reading of Ken Wilber’s Integral Semiotics and the nature of Lingua-U? We’ll turn to that question next week.