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On Vowels

consonants are edges for vowels

On vowels 1
...vowels are inconceivable without a prior, dashing innovation. For the components of every linguistic noise are two: (1) a sound (made by vibration of a column of air in the larynx or nasal cavity as it is expelled past the vocal chords); (2) the starting and stopping of the sound (by interaction of the tongue, teeth, palate, lips, and nose). The actions that start and stop sounds, which we think of as ‘consonants,’ can by themselves produce no sound. They are nonsounds having, as Plato said, “no voice” (Tht. 203b; cf. Phlb. 18b). The importance of these unutterable, symbolic entities called consonants is summarized by one historian this way: What must be stressed is that the act which created the alphabet is an idea, an act of intellect which, so far as signs for the independent consonants are concerned, is also an act of abstraction from anything an ear can hear or a voice say. For the pure consonant (t, d, k or whatever) is unpronounceable without adding to it some suggestion of vocalic breath. The Phoenician sign stood for a consonant plus any vowel, the vowel being supplied from context by a reader. The Greek sign, and this for the first time in the history of writing, stands for an abstraction, the isolated consonant.
On vowels 2
...the Greek alphabet is a phonetic system uniquely concerned to represent a certain aspect of the act of speech, namely the starting and stopping of each sound. Consonants are the crucial factor. Consonants mark the edges of sound. The erotic relevance of this is clear, for we have seen that eros is vitally alert to the edges of things and makes them felt by lovers. As eros insists upon the edges of human beings and of the spaces between them, the written consonant imposes edge on the sounds of human speech and insists on the reality of that edge, although it has its origin in the reading and writing imagination. This analogy between the nature of eros and the genius of the Greek alphabet may seem a fanciful one to literate, modern judgments; but it seems likely our judgments in this area have been blunted by habit and indifference. We read too much, write too poorly and remember too little about the delightful discomfort of learning these skills for the first time. Think how much energy, time and emotion goes into that effort of learning: it absorbs years of your life and dominates your self-esteem; it informs much of your subsequent endeavor to grasp and communicate with the world. Think of the beauty of letters, and of how it feels to come to know them.

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