Phun with Phonetics: lipograms
In the 1990s, the wonderful David Crystal, author of some of the world’s greatest texts on the English language including The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, wrote a book called Language Play, in part of which he explained the concept and history of lipograms.
Known from sixth-century BC classical Greek, this type of language play is very well established, and simply involves avoiding certain letters.
There are famous examples, such as Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby which did not use the letter e in any of its 50,110 words! Crystal explains that Gadsby was a serious attempt to present a different picture of American society than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But David Crystal himself cannot resist discreetly sliding in his own lipogram, with what I can only imagine must be a pretty big smile and a wink to the readers:
Naturally it’s difficult and limiting for authors to avoid using a linguistic form in this way, for a vast array of grammatical contrasts cannot play a part in what is said. Important stylistic modifications must occur. But it is indubitably a possibility for any author to carry on writing a work missing a particular symbol without producing a paragraph which is a total oddity. And you might not spot anything odd. Or again, you might. (p.64)
Some of the most common and amusing lipograms are those involving edited nursery rhymes, and Crystal quotes Ross Eckler’s versions of Mary had a little lamb which exclude s, h, t, e, and a – plus a final one which excludes half of the alphabet. The level of difficulty in these ‘paraphrase’ lipograms is clearly dependent on the letter of choice, how often it occurred in the original text, the spellings of synonymous words, and the extent to which any original stylistic or poetic features (such as rhyming and rhythm) are attempted to be maintained. For example:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after
It is simple enough to avoid p: ‘Jack and Jill did climb the hill, to fetch a jug of water…’ But to avoid t is trickier:
Jack and Jill ran up a hill
Seeking Adam’s ale
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came down arms all a-flail
Some lipograms take a word and avoid using any of the letters of that word. For example, avoiding any of the letters in jungle:
Sooty with Soo did top K2
For a crock of H20
Sooty did bow, too hard hit his brow,
As Soo did copy him – doh!
A different approach, for the pronunciation-lovers, is to create a phonetic lipogram, avoiding certain sounds rather than letters.
For example, given that the letters s, c and x can all sometimes be pronounced with a ‘s’ sound (as in cease /siːs/ and six /sɪks/), we might imagine it would be quite difficult to avoid using that sound. But often the letter s is pronounced as a ‘z’ (roses, is, dogs) or even a couple of other sounds (as in sure and leisure). The letter s is therefore associated with different phonemes, different sounds of the English language, just as the same phoneme can be associated with different letters as in cease and six above.
Because English letters are not always vocalized in a uniform way, phonetic lipograms can be a little trickier to pick up on. You can lead readers to believe that there is nothing unusual, even using a letter they would commonly think is connected to a particular phoneme, being as brazen as to write There is surely a lot of debris on the island, and it may yet take a while for readers to identify that you have avoided one particular phoneme in an entire paragraph.
Sssimple? In writing the paragraph above, I had to avoid a number of words that would have been really useful, such as spoken, sound, same, noticed, associated, deceive, and some. Here’s the same paragraph with the words I originally planned:
Because English letters are not always spoken in the same way, phonetic lipograms can be a little sneakier. You can deceive readers into thinking it’s all normal, even using a letter such as ‘s’ that they would commonly associate with a particular sound. By using words where ‘s’ is pronounced as /z/ or ‘sh’ (/ʃ/), and some ‘silent’ letters as in debris and island, it still might take a while for readers to spot that you have sidestepped the sound /s/ for an entire paragraph.
Try your own – see if you can avoid not just a letter, but a sound!