Where Have All the Vowels Gone?

The first step in the next stage of language’s inevitable evolution — or devolution — may have already hppnd.

The year now ending has been one of catastrophes. To name just two: The planet is getting warmer and the alphabet is getting shorter. Where have all the vowels gone?

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It’s true that A, E, I, O and U have never gotten much respect. In Scrabble, they’re each worth a measly point. On “Wheel of Fortune,” they’re cordoned off from the other letters, the ones that get you money and prizes. In fact, contestants have to pay for them out of their bankroll, punishment for making the viewers at home briefly think about stupid, common vowels.

But vowels, up until now, have not been actually without value. Their purpose has been clearly defined and accepted. When we announce we’re going to suss something out, for instance, they keep us from just hissing like a snake.

What we might call the Modern Vowel Massacre seems to have begun sometime in the early aughts, when the band MGMT found some indie-rock fame. In 2009, in People magazine, the band informed us that the proper way to pronounce its name was to simply say the individual letters: M-G-M-T. “The confusion may lie,” the magazine said, “in the fact that the band’s original name was ‘The Management,’ which they shortened to MGMT after discovering that another artist had the rights to it.”

Around the same time, tech companies like Tumblr and Flickr arrived on the scene, dropping e’s both for distinctiveness and because the altered names made it easier to trademark, claim domain names on the internet and conduct other practical business.

Now it seems I can’t go a week without seeing a handful of consonant-mad brands, like MNDFL, a meditation studio with a branch in my Brooklyn neighborhood; or WTHN, which offers “a brand-new acupuncture experience”; or Mdrn., a “vertically-integrated real estate & lifestyle brand” whose very modernness, it seems, is suggested by its abbreviated logo.

Then there are the friends who sign their (ever-briefer) correspondence “Yrs” and the rampant contractions on Twitter, with its 280-character limit.

Vowels are the distinctive thing now. The lack of them is routine.

Time was that you had to be an experimental weirdo to ditch vowels. In “Finnegans Wake,” James Joyce used the word “disemvowelled” in a section that includes this exchange of crystal-clear dialogue:

— Nnn ttt wrd?

— Dmn ttt thg.

Before we are all Joyce — God bless him — I would suggest that we take a deep breath, a mndfl one even, and consider the culling of our five (maybe six) friends. After all, there are words that can hardly do without them: muumuu, audio and oboe, just to queue up a few. One cannot text someone “b” and expect them to know one is referring to an oboe.

And what about that old Scrabble lifesaver “euoi” — “a cry of impassioned rapture in ancient Bacchic revels?” If you know of another way to identify a cry of impassioned rapture in ancient Bacchic revels, I’d like to hear it. Really. I’ll wait.

Panicked that we might be sliding (even more quickly) toward a fully emoticon-based pictographic language, I called the linguist, Columbia professor and prolific author John McWhorter to ease my mind. First, he assured me I wasn’t crazy to suggest an uptick in this trend.

“There is a fashion in American language culture right now to be playful in a way that is often childlike,” Mr. McWhorter said. “This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying ‘because science,’ or the way we’re using -y, when we say something like, ‘well, it got a little yell-y.’ ”

Mr. McWhorter acknowledges that the more often vowels are dropped, the more people get used to it and make adjustments to rapidly understand implied meanings. “You can imagine someone naming a band MGMT in 1976, and everyone would just be baffled,” he said. But he doesn’t see disemvowelling creeping into more formal areas, and expects the trend won’t move “beyond the realm of that which is ironic or iconic.”

One can hope. “Vowels,” the poet Rimbaud wrote, “Someday I’ll explain your burgeoning births.”

But how would we explain their deaths?


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