Sunday, October 07, 2012

15,842 New Words, Word 3: If I may foreshadow a bit, what's the deal with X?

If I may foreshadow a bit, what's the deal with X?

Put more clearly, why is X a letter?

If Pluto is not a planet any longer -- teach the controversy! -- then can't we sometimes demote letters down to, I don't know, phonetical symbols or something?

I'm sure this has happened before, that we demoted a letter, because there are things that I remember learning about in school that seemed to exist in other people's consciousness but did not exist in mine and which therefore must have at some time been a letter only weren't anymore; people talked about them in the way that people talk about a lot of stuff that I vaguely recognized as existing, but which I had no clue about, really.

That was life for me as a kid (and, mostly, still, as an adult): people talking about things that they all take for granted as existing and knowing about them, while I am completely lost.

I spend about 84% of my daily life not knowing what the heck people are talking about.  It was a higher percentage when I was a kid and would routinely get on a bus for a field trip to the Octagon House or something and not really know what was happening because I'd forgotten about the field trip (or, more likely) hadn't known about it at all.  Sometimes I would have a bag lunch with me, indicating that my mom had remembered the field trip and remembered to send the lunch with me, but also indicating that I not only didn't know I had a field trip but also I didn't remember carrying my bag lunch to school.

The mere fact that I've made it to 43 is amazing in more ways than ten.

Consider the schwa.

Pictured: schwa

To get back on track, here, just think about a schwa for a while.  We learned about the schwa in some grade or other, I'll just say it was the third grade because it doesn't really matter and I want to move on with my thought.

That's one of the reasons I never know what's going on or what the heck you are talking about, really: because you make me agree to stuff just to get the story going, because you are boring.  I don't mean that to be offensive (but it is), it's just the truth.  Here's how the vast majority of stories you tell go:

You:  Hey, you know that guy, Artie Johnson?*
*this is a made up name. But I think it was Marge Simpson's boyfriend in school, too.

Me: No.

You: Sure you do.  Artie was that guy who ...

*my mind fades away wondering, perhaps, whether it would be possible to make Macaroni and Cheese Balls on a stick, and whether that's a thing that people would want to eat, because I would want to eat it*


You:  ... and that's how you know Artie Johnson.

Me: I still don't know who he is.

You: Sure you do.  He was also that guy...
That's how they all go, and that's annoying because the important point of the story is (I assume) from your perspective not whether I know who Artie Johnson is, it's something Artie did or said.  (I say from your perspective because from my perspective the important point of the story is not to talk to you at all; I was just going to get coffee and you cornered me.)

So to combat that I have developed a defense mechanism that is the oral equivalent of a chameleon (or an octopus since they are better at it) changing its colors to match its surroundings, and so whenever you tell me a story about a guy, I immediately agree that I know that person, which goes like this:

You:  Remember Margo Timmins?*
*I think she is the lead singer of Cowboy Junkies.  I'm not good with making up names.

Me: Yes!

You:  She knows Artie Johnson, too...

It is not a perfect system.

We were talking about the schwa, which for purposes of this story is something I first heard of in third grade, and I heard of it because my teacher wrote an upside-down e on the board:

Pictured: schwa

and went on like nothing in the world weird had just happened, talking about this and that and stuff, and everyone in the class was acting like it was perfectly normal that Ms. Wilhelmi had just written an upside-down e on the board and then later on she said it was a schwa and people like Derrick Van Orten just acted like this was a thing and I recall staring at my soft, pulpy, grayish-yellow paper with the rows of solid blue lines with the dashed-blue lines between them forming the minimum height requirements for lower-case letters to join the word, a feeling of resignation forming in me as I longed to just be back at home in my room reading comic books and not dealing with letters that couldn't possibly exist but everyone knew about them.

To this day I do not know what the schwa is supposed to be, or do, or say, and I have for about 35 years (how old is one in 3rd grade?  That's another thing I can't recall.) suspected that it was an elaborate practical joke because my only other alternative is to admit that here is another part of society that I am clueless about, which would put the schwa in the same not-so-exclusive club as girls, women, females, and everything else that isn't Green Lantern.

(I also do not know that much about Green Lantern, either, because I only just recently found out that Earth has, like, thirteen of them and there's only supposed to be one per sector.  Having too many Green Lanterns is worse for me, far worse, than blinking Ewoks.)

The schwa, according to Wikipedia is:

the mid-central vowel sound (rounded or unrounded) in the middle of the vowel chart, denoted by the IPA symbol ə, or another vowel sound close to that position. An example in English is the vowel sound in the second syllable of the word sofa. Schwa in English is limited to unstressed positions, but in some other languages it can occur as a stressed vowel.

 And now I know less than before.  But it gets worse: Wikipedia notes that the schwa is imported from Hebrew where sometimes it was used to

either the phoneme /e/ or the complete absence of a vowel
 So now we have a letter that is used to indicate the complete absence of a letter.

Dizzy yet?  I am, but, then, I've been drinking coffee and repeatedly rebuilding the Lego TIE Fighter I built Mr Bunches yesterday so that he could re-enact the scene in Lego Star Wars where Lego Darth Vader crashes his Lego Tie Fighter onto Tatooine, which Mr Bunches has mistaken for Mars.  Because that is the only scene Mr Bunches re-enacts (Lego Darth Vader crashing on Mars), I am called on to rebuild the TIE fighter a lot.

Schwa also has been around for over a hundred years, now, and as such it's picked up a lot of uses, as Wikipedia says that it can sound like the u in but, or

  • like the 'a' in about [əˈbaʊt]
  • like the 'e' in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
  • like the 'i' in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
  • like the 'o' in eloquent [ˈɛləkwənt]
  • like the 'u' in supply [səˈplaɪ]
  • like the 'y' in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]

And now I'm really made because of that backwards 3 in eloquent's phonetic spelling.  So we can just make up letters now?  And what's that superscript h?  Can't math just stay in its own enclosure?

This is all because of x, and specifically, x is for box.  Which it isn't, but I'm getting ahead of myself, which is tough because I'm already beside myself with confusion.

Yesterday, Mr Bunches was singing a song about the alphabet that he'd learned from Youtube, where he found a video about the alphabet.  The song is kind of catchy in that mindless way that many children's songs are; I recall clearly the line for O:

O is for octopus
Ock, ock, octopus.

All the letters go like that.  And, as all alphabet songs have to, eventually the song gets around to X, at which point the song says:

X is for box.
Bah bah box.

Which it clearly isn't, as I said.  And I couldn't help but wonder, why not go with the traditional things that X is for, which are, judging by my extensive research into this consisting of thinking about it while I type this line:

X-ray fish.

And that's all.

That's all X is ever for in the alphabet, and I don't know why the song didn't just go with that, because in every other case the letter was for something and what it was for was a word it started with, like

L is for lion
La la lion

 Until it flipped at X.

That, in turn, caused me to wonder why we bother having X as a letter at all, given how useless it is.  Do you have any idea how few words in the English language (best language EVER! YAY ENGLISH! GO USA USA USA!) start with X?

I do not, either, because my Dictionary on my Kindle doesn't let me skip to that page; apparently, to look up a word in that dictionary I will have to page all the way to it page by page, which makes it a not very helpful book at all.

But there's nothing that X does that can't be accomplished by a couple of other letters working together.  We don't need to have an X-ray, we can simply have an Ecksray machine, and fish, and we could store stuff in bockses, which is more than one bocks, and if you think that looks silly, then consider that you are probably right now wearing socks and on your door there are locks and when someone wants in they do a couple of knocks which if they are loud enough will give you shocks.

We'd get use to having bockses, is my point and after a while we probably wouldn't even miss "X" and it could go back to just being used to mark the spot and possibly for tic-tac-toe which, did you know that in Rome they played a version of that game which wasn't boring? In Roman Tic Tac Toe, which was called Terni Lapilli you got three pieces and had to keep moving them around to try to get three in a row or to block, making it more of a strategy game than I would have guessed, and I just now thought how awesome it would be to quickly, before Christmas gets into full swing, to manufacture Terni Lapilli desk games, classy little versions in velvet boxes with silver O's and gold X's, three of each, and market them.  That would, I bet, be a zillion seller.  It also would make a remarkably fun app for a phone, and I might be better at that than I am at computer chess, because I have never beaten the computer even though I have it set only on medium strength.

(The problem is I don't plan far enough ahead, and also I am pretty careless with my queen.)

(The bigger problem is I am not very good at chess.)

Plus, if we dropped X we'd have 25 letters, which seems like a better number of letters: we could do 5 rows of 5 when laying them out, instead of always having an awkward set of letters hanging off the tail end, standing around near the edge of the party while the other letters all ignore them.

(High school really left a mark on me.)

Today's word that I didn't know is aardwolf.  It is, according to my dictionary

a nocturnal black-striped African mammal of the hyena family, feeding mainly on termites, with its origins being Dutch South African, combining the dutch word aarde (meaning earth) with wolf (meaning wolf).

That latter definition being sort of cheating, if you ask me.  The Dutch have a word that means wolf, and that word is wolf?  Seems like you're not really trying, there, Netherlands.  Especially when you consider that the word aardvark means Earth Pig, because vark is Dutch South African for pig.

Aardvarks are also called antbears, which made me think of bugbears from my D&D days.

This is an aardvark:

Pictured: aardvark, probably.

And this is a bugbear:

Pictured: bugbear

And this is an aardwolf:

Pictured: aardwolf.

And it looks tough but remember, it mostly eats termites. And also, the aardvark looks a lot like an armadillo.

I looked ahead a bit and so I will just tell you that the next word I came up with that I didn't know is Aaron's rod, which is "another term for the great or common mullein."

This is a mullein:

Pictured: not a fish. Not even a little.

Which seems weird.  I'd have guessed a mullein was a kind of fish.  I'm going to go with that.  Mulleins are henceforth fishes, schwas never existed, and X is demoted to phonetic symbol.  If we ever need a 26th letter, we can always call up that superscript h.  I think he's ready for the show.

UPDATE:  Sweetie has corrected me. The song does not say "bah bah box," it says:

X is for box
ks ks ks

Making a kind of kiss/hissing sound like you're saying X but don't want to.

Which we agree is worse.

Sweetie also pointed out that X is for xylophone, too, so now X stands for three things and we still don't need it because you could play a zylophone if you wanted.  When I run for President of Earth, I will have as my main plank Demote X, and as my secondary plank, I will call on the Green Lantern Corps to reduce its numbers to a reasonable amount of one.  They can keep this one:

Pictured: Artie Johnson.


Liz said...

But if you get rid of X, then what would we call Zzyzx Road?

It's a real road. I remember passing by it while on the way to Vegas and laughing hysterically at how that could possibly be pronounced.(There's not much entertainment while driving through the desert unless you have one of those temperature gauges that tells you the outside temperature. Then, depending on the season, you could marvel at how hot or cold it was outside.)

Andrew Leon said...

Look, you can't get rid of X for one reason, but it's such a good reason as to do away with any reason forgetting rid of it.
The X-Men.
Along with the X-Men: Professor X.
Sorry, the X has to stay even if I do agree with all of your other reasons, X-Men is a stronger argument than all of them combined.

Also, we have one of those plants in front of our house and have been wondering what it is all summer, so thanks for letting us know.

Rusty Webb said...

When you said X was for Box, I kept thinking, they are singing about X-Boxes now? Did microsoft underwrite that song or something? But then when your wife explained it I understood.

I like the X-men just fine, but I don't think that's any better than needing to know what marks the spot... I mean, if X doesn't mark the spot, what does? A plus sign that tipped over? That's lame.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

The last time I was at my brother's place my niece watched a video on Netflix that was similar. Every other letter started the name of an animal but when it came to X it was something like "X is for Ox" and I was like, "Say what?" That doesn't make any sense.

Anyway, I can't remember the last time I used a schwa. I think it's one of those ancient things before computers, like how in the old days they'd put one of those horizontal hyphen dealies over the second o in "cooperate" but no one does that anymore.

It really doesn't make sense either why they have so many Green Lanterns except they keep "killing" them and then bringing them back ad nauseum I suppose.

And BTW, Marge Simpson's high school boyfriend was Artie ZIFF. You did at least get the first part right, so that's something.