Europe's tradesmen & the music of speech

If the Polish plumber is back, will he be accompanied by his sometime friend, the "Estonian electrician"? As noted in this space last week, "Polish plumbers" has long been a shorthand for Eastern Europeans who hit the road in search of better economic opportunities within the European Union, of which Poland is a new member.

Last week EU ministers agreed - subject to final approval by the European Parliament - that members of a number of skilled trades and professions, including plumbers, will be given "pan-European freedom to provide services."

And so countries like Britain and France are likely to see more of the Estonian electrician in the years ahead.

But excuse me: Why does the "Estonian electrician" not have much of a charge? I don't mean personally, but come on. As a rhetorical device, this one has its wires crossed: Two "e's" do not stack up against the "Polish plumber," with its popping "p's" - suggestive of the burst pipes to be repaired perhaps?

For a start, the "e" of "Estonian" is supposed to be the short "e" of "get." The initial "e" of "electrician" is supposed to be a long "e" as in "eel." Not the same sound!

OK, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a short "e" as a second pronunciation, but the reality is that both initial "e's" are unstressed vowels.

In English, unstressed vowels tend to gravitate toward the condition of the schwa, as Webster's New World College Dictionary explains, "the neutral mid-central vowel of most unstressed syllables in English."

The schwa - the word itself comes from the Hebrew for "nought," which tells you something right there - is the "a" of "ago," the "e" of "agent," the "i" of "sanity," and so on.

This explains why many educated people would have trouble remembering whether it's "indispensable" or "indispensible" if they didn't have spelling gnomes inside their computers. Either spelling would be pronounced the same way.

In any case, this whole business made me want to confirm what I thought I knew about alliteration, consonance, and assonance, the literary devices at issue here.

Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words, or, more strictly, at the beginning of stressed syllables: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."

Consonance, as a literary device, is the repetition of consonant sounds, especially end consonants, in close proximity. Assonance is the usual term for the repetition of vowel sounds.

Robert Frost's poetry is rich with examples of all of these "sound devices." His "Nothing Gold Can Stay" includes the lines, "Then leaf subsides to leaf./So Eden sank to grief." There's rhyme there, obviously, but "Eden" and "grief" make for assonance, too.

I'm reaching back to the classic poems of high school English class as a way to think about the language of contemporary journalism because it's important to remember that language was spoken, and heard, before it was written.

The word "language" derives from "tongue," as in the human body part, and "tongue" itself can be used to mean "language," as in "speaking in foreign tongues." However important writing is, it shouldn't silence the music of speech.

Whoever writes "Estonian electrician" is paying attention to the look of the letters rather than the sounds of the words they represent. The American Heritage Dictionary has this to say about alliteration: "Modern alliteration is predominantly consonantal; certain literary traditions, such as Old English verse, also alliterate using vowel sounds."

Does this mean I'm being too hard on the "Estonian electrician"?

Perhaps.

But then again, nah. A schwa is too weak to count. In Hebrew, it's nothing at all.

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

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