Honoring the Consonant

A page from a 19th-century copybook, in which the printed headings have been copied. (Public Domain)

One of the great mysteries of human language is the existence of consonants. With the partial exception of our simian cousins—macaques in particular—and the psittacine species (parrots, cockatoos, etc.)—there are no consonants in the cries and voicings of the animal kingdom. Parrots are anomalies whose use of frequency modulations and bursts of phonemic approximates are not a precursor of elaborate reasoning or ethereal abstractions—though Tico performing on his YouTube site can be quite impressive as a pop song crooner and does a pretty fair imitation of Mick Jagger. Macaques, for their part, lack the neural architecture to reliably generate obstruents.

When we mimic the sounds of, say, a cat or a dog or cow, we add the consonants—”meow,” “woof,” “moo”—which the animal cannot articulate. (The growl sound of a threatening dog, which is often represented as a string of Rs, is not consonantal, as some assume, but uvular, formed in the back of the throat.) Many such sounds are pitches or gutturals, subsumed for simplicity’s sake under the heading of “vowel.” 

The same applies to the inanimate sounds of nature—rain, wind, thunder—which we render as vowels and reproduce with consonantal additions—“boom” for thunder, “whoosh” for wind, and so on. The sounds of human work, artifacts, appliances, and inventions, that is, neutral sounds, are also consonant-free. As with all natural sounds, we hear them as “excitements” of a damped resonator or as sonorants, glides, hums, rumbles, squeaks, schwas and so on, but we interpret them as vague or inchoate vowels, often though not always voiced with initial or terminal consonants.

Some consonants—liquids, nasals, w, j—share nuclear properties with vowels since the vocal tract is not entirely obstructed in their production, but the tracheal strictures are sufficient to provide the break—stops, plosives, fricatives, dentals, velars, alveolars—in the tonal continuum to yield morphological and phonological units of sense-making.

Clearly, the laryngeal, glottal and palatal structures that allow for consonants pertain exclusively to humans, permitting the vocalization and reproduction of complex symbols. Without consonants, the expression of logical, deductive, metaphysical and speculative thought would not likely be possible. Aside from the opposable thumb and the intricacies of neural wiring, it was the physical ability to pronounce consonants that may have been a major driver of human intelligence. Vowels, on the other hand, are the commonplace staple of the natural, animal and neutral realms. Animal communication consists in calls—primitive semiotics—as, for example, the vervet monkey’s variety of cries to warn of different predators or threats in the environment. But the consonant is missing. As linguist James Harbeck points out in The Week, “humans tend to process animal sounds into the kinds of sounds we would make. And we like the crisper onset and the clearer break of the “k” sounds.”

In the larger framework, it is language itself that absolutely distinguishes man from animal, a phenomenon which the theory of evolution cannot explain. Darwin was aware of and troubled by the inability of natural selection to resolve the dilemma. In The Descent of Man, published 12 years after The Origin of Species, Darwin tried to account for the development of human speech as an imitation of birdsong, a “musical protolanguage,” a desperate and unconvincing attempt to rescue an incomplete theory. In Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould broke with evolutionary orthodoxy by pointing out the fictive nature of Darwin’s linguistic speculations. I suspect that if the animal kingdom had been awarded the consonant, the evolutionary pageant might have been very different. 

Interestingly, among the most luminous of our achievements, the Ten Commandments were given to us in a language that is written without vowels, be it ancient Hebrew or, as some scholars believe, Aramaic—both languages containing 22 letters, all consonants. In the Beginning was the Consonant. Before its creation, human thought was formless and void.

The capacity to break the flow of aspirate, sonorant or undifferentiated sound or fracture the stream of unverbalized thought is critical to the articulation of semantic precision and formal assemblies of meaning. It is how, to borrow an image from quantum, we turn an indefinable wave of precognitive awareness into the discrete particle of a clear idea. True, syllables are a confluence of vowel and consonant, but the point remains that there are no syllables in the non-human world though there are plenty of vowels or, rather, vowel-like sonics. The consonant is the human addition, rendering phonetic segments meaningful. 

Of course, not all languages are alphabetical. An ideographical and tonal language like Chinese, for example, which resists Romanization, uses pictograms to represent ideas and objects, but Chinese characters can be transcribed, read and spelled as Pinyin sounds, sharply revealing their consonantal properties.

There is a legend that King Solomon could speak to and understand the animal and natural creation. In 1 Kings 4:33, we learn that King Solomon could speak knowledgeably about “trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes.” However, according to Jewish tradition (the Haggadah; the midrash Yalkut), Solomon could actually converse with and understand animals and the elements of nature—no doubt telepathically, a mode of discourse which may have dispensed with both vowels and consonants. The language of spirit escapes our categories. 

Nonetheless, I sometimes think that the consonant is a compensatory gift from the Divine Lexicographer, since we have not been blessed with Solomon’s endowment. More realistically, the consonant is an evolutionary structure distinguishing man from beast. One might postulate that notational languages—music, mathematics, equationese—are consonantal derivatives. The consonant is a unique formation whose mysterious power and effect enable us to transcend mere intuitive apperception and form coherent systems of reproducible meaning. In its absence, I could not even think what I am writing now, however whimsically.

Our two cats Stanislav and Nandor are quite expressive beings, each in his own peculiar way. Stan produces arpeggios on the keyboard and Nan is an avid percussionist, yet, like Tico, they do not parse the world and develop concepts about it. My dog Boychik, whom Darwin might have admired and whom I remember with love, was a canine genius, but he never understood Plato or barked in syllogisms. It’s all in the consonant.