I'm thinking of 'u'

Have you ever noticed that some words sound like what they mean? I don't mean just the obvious onomatopoeia of snap, crackle, pop. Some language sounds seem to be connected with certain meanings. Notice how many upward-soaring words have a long "i" sound - fly, sky, high, spire. Or how many ditzy little words have the short "i" of, well, "ditzy" or "little": bits, kids, chips. Compare the sound of "potato chips" versus "pork chops." Which one sounds like more substantial victuals?

But the sound that most strikes me is the short "u" - the "u" of "putt," that is, not "put." I find out the "putt" sound is known to phoneticians as an "open mid back unrounded" vowel. But let's just call it the blunt "u" for short. It's characteristic of English, and utterly absent, as far as I can tell, from any of our linguistic near neighbors, including German and Dutch.

What's so special about this blunt "u"? Well, it's a sound that comes into play to discuss some of the base realities of human life. The blunt "u" is the sound of dust and mud and stuff and junk, and scum and feeling crummy on a dull day.

It's the sound of bumbling and bungling, of being taken for a chump, of taking a drubbing, of getting dumped by your sweetie, of flubbing your lines or flunking a test, of frumpy attire, of muffing an opportunity, of getting punched in the nose, of slumming and slumping and stubbing your toe. It's fussing and "cussing" (to use the colloquial pronunciation, from which the "r" has completely disappeared). And it's "plug ugly," too.

The "open mid back unrounded" vowel is the sound of thunder and drum rolls, but also of a dull thud in the next room, or a blunt rebuke.

In forms of personal address, it's "bub," or maybe "buster," or down South, "Bubba": "You'd better move your car, bub, or I'm gonna write you up a ticket."

It's not quite the same as being announced by the butler, is it?

The blunt "u" sound isn't all bad news; it's the sound of "love," of fun in the sun with your buddies - or your chums. It's "hugs" and "money," but also "funny money," which rhymes so perfectly you know you'd better watch out.

Let's say the blunt "u" is very much grounded; not flashy, but solid. Even its symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, an inverted "v," seems to have both feet on the ground. It gets the job done. But it sometimes has an image problem. Compare the Anglo-Saxon "chunk" and the French-derived "slice." Which would you rather serve to company?

The tension within the English language between workaday Anglo-Saxon and highfalutin French goes back to the Norman Conquest. In an e-mail exchange with me this week, Melinda Menzer, associate professor of English at Furman University in South Carolina, and author of a website on the Great Vowel Shift of around the year 1400, speculated that the Germanic roots of some of these words may reinforce the sense that the blunt "u" is a cruder sound.

The blunt "u" isn't confined to monosyllables, though. It's there in a number of Latin-derived polysyllables: repulsion, revulsion, repugnant, pugnacious.

And it even shows up in "pulchritude," which has to be on the list of Top 10 Words in English That Do Not Mean What They Sound as if They Would Mean.

This column appears with links at: weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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