Mmegi Blogs :: Analysing the linguistic variations of the vowel ‘u’
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Wednesday 21 February 2018, 17:14 pm.
Analysing the linguistic variations of the vowel ‘u’

When last week I discussed the etymology of the Kalanga term shaba and broke it down to ‘proto-terms’ se (‘of, related to’) and huba (‘be prominent’), the latter being as in mo-hubu (herniated belly-button that protrudes), it later brought to mind certain aspects of pronunciation that deserve further treatment – and that is exactly what we will do in this week’s article.
By L M Leteane Fri 15 Jul 2016, 12:15 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Analysing the linguistic variations of the vowel ‘u’

We noticed that the ‘a’ in shaba, and the ‘u’ in ‘hub’ are both pronounced ‘ah’ (whose formal notation is the symbol ‘ä’), whereas the ‘u’ in hubu is pronounced ‘oo’ (as in ‘hoot’). Yet, ‘hub’ and hubu mean the same thing: ‘of greater size/ prominence’ and, semantically, therefore, also shifting to mean ‘of more importance [than that which surrounds it]’. And that is also why, I explained, shaba as meaning ‘share’ (thus ‘trade’), addresses – again with a semantic shift – the dominant activity when people gather at a hub or ‘prominent place’: to share or trade! (When a number of people meet, their sharing or trading does not have to be goods only; gossip and ideas are also shared and traded.) Such an act is indeed se-hubu (‘hub-like’) and, semantically, the term shifted from an adjective or noun to become a verb (an action or ‘doing’ word). Yes, all that is fine, but are there other words where the vowel ‘u’ tends to shift back and forth from ‘ah’ to ‘oo’?

Now, if the vowel ‘u’ tended to mutate only in Kalanga or Setswana, then it would be a Bantu predilection, ‘Bantu’ being the greater language family comprising most of Africa’s language groups. But that is not the case. Even the Indo-European language family is replete with such internal sound-shifts. Before giving examples of where ‘ah’ (ä) shifts to ‘ooh’, let me first emphasise that there a many straightforward cases whereby ‘ah’ remains ‘ah’. A good example is mekalo/ ‘megalo’ (both meaning ‘of considerable size’). But there are examples of an ‘intra’ variation in the pronunciation of ‘u’, i.e. where there is that sound-change in a given proto-term within a language, as in shaba (se-huba, as explained) and huba, and in ‘hub’ and ‘hubris’ (‘hubris’ means ‘excessive pride’ i.e. where one feels prominent [over those around him] – exactly as in ‘hub’…and we can even relate it to the Setswana phrase “go ntsha sehuba”: “to stick out one’s huba, that is, ‘chest’ – which is what a proud person typically does; which chest in most very fit people sticks out (‘hubs’) anyway. Other ‘intra’ words comprise English terms ‘lull’ and ‘lullaby’ – where the ‘u’ is ‘ah’ – versus ‘loll’ (‘recline or lean in a relaxed or indolent manner’), and in Setswana/Kalanga, lala versus lulama – all these words being premised on the proto-term lala (‘lie [down], ease off’).

‘Inter’ words, i.e. those where one language display a penchant for a certain pronunciation of the ‘u’ and another exhibits a proclivity to the other enunciation, comprise proto-terms such as thola (‘be silent or inactive’) and ‘dull’; buga (‘oo’-based, and meaning ‘made to suffer’) and ‘bug’, as well as buda and ‘bud’.

The latter requires further explanation. Bud-ologo (‘expand, inflate’) literally


means ‘un-bud’, and the proto-term buda (‘booda’) evidently relates to putha (‘gather together’). Indeed, a bud is shaped as if it has gathered itself tightly inward and is ‘refusing to come-out’ as a flower.  But why is there an internal shift from ‘ah’ to ‘oo’ in many languages?  I discern that since ‘ah’ is enunciated with an open mouth, some had viewed it as inelegant, “as if inviting a fly into one’s mouth”!  In similar vein, some avoid ‘l’ as ‘baby-like’ and prefer to substitute it with ‘r’—the latter being one of the more difficult consonant to pronounce, and typically one of the last a baby learns to master. In phonetics, this particular speech defect is called a ‘lallation’ or ‘lambdacism’ and it can afflict even adults. Language, it seems, in an effort to sound mature and elegant, is greatly influenced by such seemingly minor preoccupations. So, the way I intuit it, the ‘ah’ and the ‘oo’, in both Indo-European and Bantu languages, were used side by side with no particular preference given to any of the enunciations, but as people slowly welded into a distinct language groups they gradually standardised certain pronunciations within their language group, but taking freely from either set of preferences.

Some language groups, however, were partial to ‘ooh’ rather than to ‘ah’, for reasons hinted at above. This is, perhaps, why Nigerians prefer ‘brooder’ to ‘brahther’ for ‘brother’ and why the Scots, and many English dialects in Britain, still pronounce ‘must’ as ‘moost’.

‘Upper-crust’ English, of course, enunciates ‘must’ as mäst, which is why when the accent of Scottish inventor Robert Louis Stevenson—credited with the invention of the steam locomotive, if not necessarily the steam engine itself (that was invented by James Watt, another Scotsman), was the source of much amusement in the English parliament when called in to directly explain his ‘iron horse’ and ‘railroad’ concept.

Indeed, the favourite upper-crust English caricature about Scottish pronunciation is captured in the made-up phrase “There’s a loose moose about the house”: the Scots would, of course, enunciate it as something like “there’s a loose moose aboot the hoose”!

Now, the ‘ah-oo’ sound-shift is not the only one to ‘afflict’ languages, and even language in general. We have noted, above, that there is the ‘l’ to ‘r’ sound-shift, whose causality we have briefly explored. Others include the ‘b’-to-‘p’ sound-shift, the ‘l’-to-‘d’ sound-shift, the ‘v’-to-‘b’ sound-shift. the ‘h’ (as in house) to ‘g’ (as in Julio) sound-shift (the latter also often being rendered as ‘r’ – quite like in the French pronunciation of that consonant), and many other sound-shifts that can contrive to confuse a budding etymologist. We will continue to explore the linguistic and etymological ramifications of a few such mutations in the coming weeks.

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