Monday, September 08, 2008

How Vowels Endure Winter

On a recent family cruise to Bermuda and the Bahamas I took it upon myself to write down the words “Erie” and Greenwich” repeatedly. While saying a word aloud over and over again in succession can turn it into sonic gibberish, writing the words did not obscure their meaning. The pair retained their status as information, representing a city and village. I tried to hold the pen in a relaxed manner, successfully forestalling writer’s cramp. This activity was not meant to be meditative, as it took some focus to keep my printing consistent.

The similarities and differences in these two words came to occupy much of my conscious mind. I’d made them unavoidable objects of examination. On a personal level, the primary similarity is that the largest part of my life has now been spent living in one or the other of them. Erie. Greenwich. They’re both two-syllable words, and they both employ the same vowels: two E’s and one I. But this is where the differences come in to play, allowing for a solid example of how English has absorbed a broad range of approaches to the construction of words. Both words have a long E sound, but arrive at them through different means.

For me, the most compelling fact is that Erie uses only one consonant in delivering its two syllables, while Greenwich has latched on to a half dozen. Thinking about each name in relation to the geography where that municipality is located opens the door for a metaphorical overlay. Erie, on the shores of the Great Lake which shares its name, can be a bracing place to be in the winter, as winds blow across the frozen waters. With but one R stuck near the center to barely keep them warm, E, E and I look exposed and vulnerable. Meanwhile, out in the rolling, protective hills of Greenwich, the same trio wrapped themselves in a pair of double consonants at the front at back ends, with an additional pair near the center, making for a warm, two-room shelter.

Words appear in my mind in upper and lowercase, though I print in all uppercase. I enjoy thinking of words as their shapes, and Greenwich offers a tidy little yard, with the taller end letters shading the row of seven within. My first name, when not busy reveling in its alternating consonant and vowel construction, also enjoys a similar sort of responsibility. Erie, short and with its height all at one end, looks powerful, like a locomotive. That’s a connection I may have made in my youth because of the General Electric plant there where my father worked and which still makes those mighty train locomotives to this day.

- David Greenberger

(originally published in my column "I Still Feel Like Myself," Main Street #56, 2006)