Mmegi Blogs :: Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English (2)
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Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English (2)

Last week, we saw that spelling in English is rather less straightforward than in Setswana. That is why, in primary school, children learn to read and enunciate English words firstly through phonics (that is, a method of teaching the ‘art’ of reading, pronunciation and spelling based on the phonetic spelling of ordinary words).
By L M Leteane Fri 05 Aug 2016, 12:21 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English (2)








The terms ‘phonics’ and ‘phonetics’ are based on the Greek term phono, which means ‘sound’…thus alluding to the process of enunciation. In this particular mini-series, however – this being the second and final instalment – we specifically addressed ‘phonemes’ (defined last week) that, in English, involved compound letters…concentrating particularly on vowels that, in English, sound-shift because of the appendage of an ‘e’ in their spelling: for example in ‘cage’ where the ‘a’ sound-shifts from ah (or eh) to ei, and in ‘kite’ where the ‘i’ sound-shifts from ee to ai. When we looked deeper into such ‘strange’ spellings that do not look quite like they enunciate, we found that such spelling typically hid the ancient way in which such words – if they also happen to be proto-terms – were most probably pronounced, and that Setswana helps uncover that. We must pause, here,  to note that you might not find the word ‘proto-term’ in any dictionary or study of linguistics: it is a term I coined to express what linguistics is officially doubtful about: that there was once indeed an ancient, universally-common mother-language we once all spoke…exactly as alluded to in Genesis 11. However, and contrary to the official position of linguistics, I have not only unearthed distinct vestiges of that protolanguage, but have found that Setswana is, in all probability, the closest living language to that now-lost mother-language.

This week we start off by looking at proto-terms that are a compound of two vowels. An example of this is the oe in ‘toe’ (the tallest, biggest foot digit). In English, the ‘toe’ is pronounced as tou, but we can definitively relate the proto-term to toe (‘peak, most prominent, primary’, now (se)tlhoe in modern Setswana). What we must immediately note here is that because the ‘o’ and the ‘e’ in oe are enunciated separately, they compound to give us the labial (lip-based articulation) we. And that is how, typically, the phoneme is spelt in current Setswana…although the older spelling oe is still retained in Sesotho. Another example of where the proto-term enunciation was truer to the English spelling is the au in ‘paucity’ (‘scarcity, dearth, lack of’).

Instead of the enunciation pawsiti (where the ‘aw’ pronounced as in ‘[dog’s] paw’), the ‘a’ and the ‘u’ in the Setswana term pau! – an exclamational expression conveying ‘a [sudden] shortage’ – are separately enunciated. Similarly, the ore in ‘lore’ – pronounced approximately like the term ‘law’ – which is a Latin-based term meaning ‘thong, strap’, is lore (lew-ree) in Setswana; a flexible branch used to make a walking stick, the crook of which has to bent before the branch dries. The base-word here is ur, which – as in kuru (Setswana) and ‘curve’ (English) – means ‘bend’, thus implying ‘flexible’…just as a thong or strap has to be.

Now, the compound-vowel oo in ‘look’ is actually because the term

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is made up of two morphemes lo (a noun-pointer, a definite article) and oko – as in okomela (peep [into]).  Another example of this is ‘book’ (bo-oko) – an item we indeed tend to ‘look at’ for protracted periods. Oko is thus the common denominator whose etymology here appears opaque to Indo-European. And as we saw last week, a spelt but un-enunciated consonant in English can obscure the fact that it is a proto-term having a Setswana cognate, e.g. the l in ‘calm’ (cahm). This English term is evidently made up of morphemes ka (with, by) lulamo (peace, serenity). Thus, the lm (lulam) was obviously compressed in Indo-European. We can similarly relate ‘palm’ (pahm) to palama. How? A palm tree was evidently so-called because, like a coconut tree, the fruit from which we get the palm-oil is located notoriously high on the tree and yet the species has a long stem that is difficult to negotiate. Thus – no doubt – the resigned remark “palama!” (climb!) was reserved for one determined to get to the fruit.

Let us now end with phonemes that consist entirely of consonants. One such is th, pronounced with a lisp in English and as enunciated as a soft t in Setswana. A good example of this is the name ‘Thoth’ – the Anglicized spelling of ‘Tehuti’, the revered Egyptian wisdom-god. The Anglicism, here, tends to obscure the fact that its base-word is ruta (‘teach’), and that thuto (education) – which we can easily relate to ‘tutor’ and ‘tutelage’ in English – is the noun of the term. So, if thuti is merely a paradigm of ruti (viz. (mo)ruti: ‘teacher’) then, without the th lisp, ‘Tehuti’ literally means ‘teacher’. Removing the lisp also unearths the fact that ‘both’ and bothe are actually cognate terms.  In Setswana, the ‘h’ in the phoneme ph has the same effect noted above whereby it softens the p. The Anglicized pronunciation of the ph in ‘pharaoh’, for example, has had the unfortunate effect of causing Setswana to not even recognize a word that properly belongs to it (I have written at length, in this column and in my books, about ancient Bantu displacement from Egypt not very long after Hebrews left the region in two major waves). Phara means ‘wide, large, great’ and aho means ‘building’ (now kaho in Sotho). It does indeed mean ‘Great House’! (It also explains the ‘strange’ a-oh in ‘pharaoh’.) 

Finally, we can relate ‘globe’ (roundness, rotundity) with kolobe (‘pig’: a rotund, obese creature) – though Standard English enunciates the gl as dl – and also ‘climb’ with kalama (a paradigm of palama, see above), where Setswana would now spell the enunciation cl as tl. Some English dialects, we must note, still pronounce the gl in ‘globe’ and cl in ‘climb’ the ‘Setswana way’…or, evidently, the very ancient way!

Comments to leteanelm@gmail.com

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