Kate Burridge when discussing phonesthemes references Alice of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass fame, who on hearing the poem Jabberwocky said, “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
And this is the effect of phonesthemes which lacks the precision of a morpheme, but has an ‘associative’ force sparked by sound. Awareness of the phonesthemes this week sparked conversations about the ’feel’ and connotations of words.
Consider the effect of the letters ‘odge’ in the final position in a base element. Words like ‘splodge’, ‘podge’ ‘stodge’, and ‘stodgy’ create an impression of heavy solidity , of lumpiness. (A fascinating orthographic inquiry is to investigate why some words end with the digraph <ge> and some with trigraph <dge> to create the phoneme / dʒ/. One student and I pursued this recently, but for the rest of the class, this will be investigated on another day!)
We too discussed this week <sn> in an initial position. A mad race calling out many words – many having a nasaly, whining, unpleasantness, a nose curling condescension: snitch, sneer, snarl, snort, sniff, snide, snivel, snore, snicker, snoop,snob.
And why this phonesthemic leap? We had begun the year learning two poems revolving around dreams: ‘Dreams’ by Langston Hughes and ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ by WB Yeats. It was the second line of Yeats’s beautiful poem, ‘Had I the Heaven’s embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light’ that triggered this particular word inquiry.
On student asked about the meaning ‘enwrought’ (archaic, poetic as indicated by OED) unaware that he was instigating a venture down a slippery (and the initial consonant cluster ‘sl’ is also well worth a phonesthetic investigation: slide, slink, slop,slope) side-path of phonesthemes.
We discovered two elements in the word ‘enwrought’: a prefix <en-> and a free base element <wrought> from mid 13th c. past participle of the O.E. root for work. What other words began with <wr>? What underlying sense did these words suggest?
Once again the class was off and enthusiastically calling out words:
‘writ, wrench, wrinkle,
wrap, wrestle, writhe,
We investigated the origins of all these words and discovered Germanic /O.E. roots. All words conveyed a sense of twistedness, of distortion. Read Online Etyomology Dictionary here about<wr->.
Here are additional words we discovered:
‘wrawl’ of a cat, to caterwaul
‘wraxle’ and ‘wraxling’ S.E .Eng dialect word for wrestle
‘writhen’ archaic adj for ‘writhe/wrythen’
From Spenser, I discovered: ‘wrizled’ as an adjective meaning wrinkled (not sure I want to be either!)
‘wroath’ Shakespearean meaning misfortune perhaps from ruth.
The most intriguing award goes to the ‘wrybill’, a wading bird native to New Zealand, whose sideways curving bill ‘wrests’ food from under rocks.
The Prefix <en->
The prefix <en-> proved interesting here as well. I am familiar with <en-> from ‘ensure’ as opposed to ‘insure’ and have often wondered vaguely about inquire/enquire and whether there was a subtle difference in meaning. Fowlers’ Modern English Usage allows for both forms emphasising the subtle difference with ‘inquire‘ as investigatory and ‘enquiry’ as informal querying. Burridge cites the work of linguist Pam Peters who notes inquiry outnumbers 10-1 enquiry in written text. Burridge writes that ‘imported words with the <en-> prefix came from French and <in-> from Latin.’ Oxford English Dictionary states that:
‘From 14th cent. onwards the prefix in- (im- ) has been frequently substituted for en- (em- ); and, conversely, en- (em- ) has been substituted for the prefix in- (im- ) of words of Latin or Italian origin, and for the native English in- prefix1. Nearly every word, of long standing in the language, which is formed with en- has at some period been written also with in- . Hence it is often impossible to determine whether in a particular word of English formation the prefix en- or in- is due to the analogy of words of French, Latin, or purely English origin.‘
This fascinating entry goes on to raise issues of ‘etymological fitness’ and attempts to purify the language: ‘The substitution of in- for en- has in part been due to notions of etymological fitness, the Romanic en- having been regarded as a corrupt and improper form of the Latin in-, while the English formations in en- were either referred to Latin analogies or treated as compounds of the native preposition’.
I read with interest that ‘the now prevailing tendency is to use en- (em- ) in English formations’. Perhaps that is why Yeats chose ‘enwrought’ rather than ‘inwrought’ , yet in my Mac Oxford Dictionary it is only ‘inwrought’ that has made it into the dictionary: with the following denotation: ‘adjective literary, (of a fabric or garment) intricately embroidered with a pattern or decoration’.
This <en-> foray led us to the following wonderful discovery of many entertaining forms of words, once more common:
† enlabyrinth:v. Obs. to entangle as in a labyrinth. 1652 E.Benlowes Theophila i. liii. 8 ‘My Soul, enlabyrinth’d in Grief’.
† ennet v. Obs. to entangle.1598 J. Florio Worlde of Wordes,To ensnare or take in a net or ginne,to entramell,to ennet.
† enjourney v. Obs. (refl.) to start on a journey. 1596 R. Linche Dom Diego in Diella sig. F6v, The next day, They would eniourney them.
englamour v. to surround with 1864 Dicey in Daily Tel. 15 July, The memory of a great past still englamours them [the Danes].
† enstomach v. Obs. to encourage.1545 T. Raynalde Womans Bk. 59 The midwife..enstomakyng her to pacience.
† encouch:v. Obs. to lay upon a couch, fig.1596 Raigne of Edward III sig. B4v, Encouch the word..with such sweete laments.
† engrape v. Obs. to cover with grapes.1523 J. Skelton Goodly Garlande of Laurell (Dyce) 656 Vinis engrapid.
† endart v. Obs.1599 Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet i. iii. 100 ‘More deepe will I endart mine eye’.
enfuddle v.1822 J. Wilson in Blackwood’s Mag. 12 113 Punch our powers insidiously enfuddles.
engarble v. to mutilate.1609 Bp. W. Barlow Answer Catholike English-man 73 The engarbled Anatomie of a damned wretch.
engladden v.1874 E. B. PUSEY Lenten Serm. 246 Thee..Who didst..engladden..me.
enlanguish v. Obs. to render languid.1603 J. FLORIO tr. Montaigne Ess. III. xiii. 647 It is pittie a man should be so..enlanguished.1654 A. COKAYNE tr. G. F. Loredano Dianea IV. 329 Her eyes, enlanguished by griefe.
enwisen v. to make wise.1860 E. B. PUSEY Minor Prophets 427 Enwisening, rejoicing, enlightening the soul.
Perhaps now you too like me are ennetted in this <en-> list. Enwisened and engladdedned by these discoveries you will encouch and engrape yourself reaching perchance a state of enlanguishment!
And to return finally to where we began with Yeats. Listen to the students who below recite this poem and enticed by the ‘taste’ and the sound of the words have grappled it to their hearts. We discussed the last lines of the poem and have taken the last lines to heart reminding ourselves of the need to ‘tread softly’ with one another, all of us vulnerable, all of us learning to be open, to take risks in our thinking and to collaborate and challenge one another in a respectful way as we together build our year long learning community.
The print on the left of the poem was created by Cuala Press, formerly Dun Emer, established to support the Irish arts and craft movement.This press set up by the Yeats sisters was the only press run solely by women. They published 48 titles of WB Yeats, as well as works by Ezra Pound, Jack Yeats, Robin Flower, Elizabeth Bowen,Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, John Masefield, Frank O’Connor, Synge and Rabindranath Tagore and others.
Read more about Cuala Press, operational until 1946.
Read about Jack Yeats, hero of Colm Toibin who felt Jack captured the instablity of the Irish light. “He saw its swirling, cloud-laden movements as pure gift.’ Both brothers intrigued by the light.
Read more about the vulnerable Wrybill.