Monday 16 March 2009

names of letters

I was listening to Classic FM while driving, when the announcer told us that the next item would be Johann Sebastian Bach’s Air on a String.
I thought at first that this was a twee joke, but it doesn’t seem to have been: everything else was perfectly serious. Why he didn’t say on a dʒiː string, as normal, I’ve no idea. (Anyhow, musicological pedants would insist on Air on the G String.)
Naming the letters of the alphabet in this way is something I’ve previously encountered only among primary school teachers and children learning to read, amongst whom it seems quite common to name the letters not eɪ, biː, siː, diː, iː, ef… but æ, bə, kə, də, e, fə….
I wonder what they do when they get to K. I think it would have to remain keɪ so as to distinguish it from C .
I have recently joined a male-voice choir. One of our warming-up routines involves reciting the letters of the alphabet, using their normal names eɪ, biː, siː…
(do) ˈA B C D
(re) ˈE F G
(mi) ˈH I J K
(fa) ˈL M N O P
(so) ˈQ R S
(la) ˈT U V
(ti) ˈW X Y
(do´) ˈZ.

—but although we are British and would normally call the last letter zed, to make it rhyme we have to pretend to be Americans and say ziː.


  1. In answer to your question: What do people do when they get to K?

    I used to work in a depressing call centre where people naturally had to spell various things to us. Some callers did not know the the NATO phonetic alphabet (aside, can it really call itself 'phonetic'?) Alpha Bravo Charlie, etc. Some did not use other variants such as H for Harry, etc. Some customers used to use the system æ, bə, kə which you describe, which only made things even more difficult in puzzling out which letters were being spelt, particularly with some regional accents and some less than perfect telephone connections (voiced/unvoiced combinations were a particular problem: "Was that D for Delta, or T for Tango, sir?").

    But to return to the point: there was one difference using what we called "baby alphabet" which was often made clear, however:

    C was
    K was "kicking "

  2. It is really quite amazing that anyone with an age in double figures would use this "baby alphabet", isn't it? Mind you, I feel the same about words like "tummy" and "bye-bye" which seem to me to belong in the nursery but are now firmly established in adult vocabularies. In a few years' time, will drivers stopped by the police be asked whether they have had a drinkie-winkie since last beddie-byes, or have their pee-pee tested for excessive alcohol on pain of having their bottie-bums smacked by the judge?

  3. I've never heard such things. I'm a Chilean learner of English and this really amazes me.

    I'm afraid I can't provide equivalent examples from Spanish.

  4. Wow - as a young adult from Massachusetts, I'm completely unfamiliar with the use of that "æ, bə, kə" baby alphabet outside of a teaching context.

    @Damon Lord: Yeah, I suppose it would be better if more people used the NATO phonetic alphabet for spelling things out over the phone, although the amateur linguist within me winces at the name. ;)

  5. Of course, in Serbian that's the usual way of naming letters.
    Alternatively, we can use /a:/ /be:/ /tse:/ /de:/, which I reckon we might've borrowed from German.

  6. At least at my stepdaughter's school in Newton Mearns south of Glasgow, 'c' and 'k' are 'curly /kə/' and 'kicking /kə/'.
    Apart from English, the only language I've learnt that used this type of schwa-names for consonant letters is Georgian. For the entire year I spent in Tbilisi, I never once heard the letters called ani, bani, gani, etc., only /a/, /bə/, /ɡə/, etc.
    My theory is that it happens in languages that have letter names that are too far removed from the pronunciation they normally represent.

  7. I first wondered if it was possible that the announcer had attempted the German pronunciation of the letter G. But it wouldn't make any sense to use the German pronunciation unless he was using the German title Air auf der G-Saite, and in any case [gə] is not really close to [geː], as G would be called in German.

    In all my life, I have never heard the 'æ, bə, kə' system to name the letters in the English alphabet, not even as a baby alphabet. It does remind me of the alternate names for the hangul (Korean alphabet) consonants used in North Korea, such as [ɡ̊ɯ], [nɯ], [d̥ɯ] for ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ instead of the traditional [ɡ̊ijʌk]/[ɡ̊iɯk], [niɯn], [d̥iɡɯt]. I understand this is how they pronounce acronyms made up of hangul letters, a phenomenon unknown in the South.

  8. Surely a true musicological pedant would refer to it as the air from the Orchestral Suite No.3 in D major?

  9. I recently overheard a young boy playing 'I spy' with a woman who I took to be his grandmother. She said "I spy with my little eye something beginning with /æ/". He answered "ice cream", presumably thinking of the first element of the initial diphthong in 'ice'. She gave him a shocked and disapproving look and said "But 'ice cream' begins with /ɪ/!"

    By the way, I used to like the visuals in the right-hand column of the old blog. Pity they seem to have disappeared in the new version.

  10. J. L. Crompton: Well said!

    The names of the English letters are among the few English (though indirect) borrowings from Etruscan. Apparently it was the Etruscans who first kicked over the old Semitic-derived names alpha, beta, gamma ... in favor of the simple system whereby vowels were named after their long pronunciation, stops were suffixed with [e], with the exception of [ke] 'C', [ka] 'K', and [ku] 'Q'; and the other consonants were prefixed with [e]. This system was taken over wholesale by Latin, and normal sound-changes through French and English have given us the [ei, bi, si, ...] of today. The names of more recent letters sometimes (as [vi] 'V') disregard the older system.

    In addition, these words are particularly juicy examples of pure sound-change, because they have no standard orthography, existing only in oral tradition -- in the midst of almost wholly literate Anglophonia.

  11. Greek has an "informal" alphabet, alongside the official; it was formerly used exactly for the reason of teaching writing in primary school. (Classic example: vu, a: va = β + α = βα.) in the absence of schwas, the filler vowel was /u/.

    The informal alphabet has spilled over on occasion into acronyms; the most widespread instead is the initialism for the Greek Communist Party, ΚΚE: much more often /kukuˈe/ than /ˈkapa kapa ˈepsilon/.

    I think I've heard the VAT (ΦΠΑ) at least once as /fupuˈa/; it's now settled into the hybrid /fipiˈa/ (i.e. official consonant, unofficial vowel).

  12. I find phonetics fascinating. When I was younger I never understood the "do re mi' warmup, but now that I'm older it makes a lot of sense.

  13. We want to learn good English for our children, This method is great for learning English this post is very useful for me.
    NATO phonetic alphabet


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