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May 3, 2007 | Tate Linden
...or maybe by both "A" and "E". We're not really sure.

The English language is a funny thing. You see, we English speakers have this strange way oflettera.jpg turning the letter A into a diphthong. (This has a lot to do with something called "The Great Vowel Shift.") So even though we mentally think we're only saying one thing when we pronounce the letter "A" we're actually using two quite distinct vowel sounds - both "ehh" and "eee" (shown as /eɪ/ when the educated linguist folks write it.) That nice bright mental A sound you get isn't a single sound at all - it is a blend.

Still need more proof? Try pronouncing the letter "A" without moving your jaw, lips, or tongue. Can't do it, can you? (And yes... those of you who just did this out loud in your cubicles... your neighbors do think you're going insane.)

What does this have to do with naming? Not a whole lot, unless you're considering an acronym. Specifically an acronym with the letter A followed by the letter E. And further, it is only for acronyms that can't be pronounced as words in and of themselves.

Consider the following potential acronym of "AEDP." You can't pronounce it easily in the English language (though if you tried it'd likely come out as "Ayeedipuhh".) Since the word doesn't work the reader or speaker is forced to sound out the letters themselves as "A-E-D-P". Seems okay so far anyway, right? Well, not really.

Here's why:
  1. As noted, the letter A is a diphthong containing the sounds of both the letters A and E.
  2. There is no intervening sound or disconnect between the first and second letters (like a glottal stop or a percussive burst, or anything to indicate that a new letter is starting.)
  3. Since the letter A sound ends with E and the following letter is actually an E there is no indicator that the second letter exists at all unless:
  • You artificially stop the flow of air somehow between the first two letters
  • You emphasize the second letter with a change in pitch or volume
  • You sustain the second letter unnaturally so that it is obvious that the E-sound isn't part of the A-sound.
In Stokefire's informal tests, the speakers strongly believe they are saying AEDP naturally and yet the listeners consistently hear "ADP" with a slightly elongated letter "A" sound.

The E vanishes!

How about that? A letter than can be fully voiced and yet not registered in the mind of the listener. Pretty cool, eh?

Unless of course the name is yours and you're hoping that people interested in your organization will be able to find you.

(Hello to the wonderful association folks that just learned this as we reviewed naming candidates yesterday. Thanks for giving me something fun and informative to write about today.)

Tate Linden Principal - Stokefire 703-778-9925
2 Comments
BirdieGirl May 3, 2007 11:25 AM

Acronyms beginning with "IE" present the same problem, for largely the same reason. Ask a sampling of folks how they would spell the acronym "IEEPA" (that's the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the statute that makes it illegal to give money to the Taliban, Iran, Syria, and various other government-designated baddies). Most spell it "IEPA” (as in the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency), because the first I elides into the E.

Tate Linden May 4, 2007 7:13 AM

Excellent point - I and A both elide in a similar way. (Though I've been looking for an excuse to say that they're both "diphthongian"... perhaps this is the right moment.)
IEEPA is an interesting case as well. The double-E forces an emphasis on the EE sound, but doesn't convey that there are TWO of the same letter. And this isn't helped by the first E sliding into the letter I.
Oh, and for what it's worth - I love the dichotomy between your name and the fact that you always bring the most badass references to stuff when you comment. Little cute birdie girl with BIG BAD ANTI-TERRORIST KNOWLEDGE.