Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Odd, off, oft, old.
The artist and printmaker Annie Bissett has discovered this wonderful bit of found poetry, which she has posted on her Tumblr blog. Adapted from Thomas Dilworth's A New Guide to the English Tongue, an oft-reprinted 18th-century schoolbook, it reproduces part of a table of "Words of Three Letters, viz. One Vowel and two Consonants."
Although it may not be immediately apparent, there is a logical order to the table. It is alphabetized first by last letter, then by central vowel, and finally by first letter. The first word in the table (which actually begins at the bottom of the unshown preceding page) is Dab, and it is followed by Web. Bib fib nib rib. and so on until it reaches Box sox. It then begins again with words that don't fit the consonant-vowel-consonant spelling pattern: The. Who. Cry dry fly etc. (although Two., in the second paragraph, would seem to belong further down). The words in parentheses appear to be ones whose vowel is pronounced differently from those of the rest of their respective groups. The book uses the old-style ſ for initial s.
But knowing how the table is constructed is much less fun than simply reading it (especially aloud), enjoying the music of English speech sounds, and reflecting on the strangeness of human language. It may remind us that these everyday words, the essential building blocks of English, are, in the end, just arbitrary signs, ones that would mean nothing, or perhaps different things, to someone who knew nothing of the language.