Friday, June 5, 2009

Alphabet Soup

A few years ago I happened across a darling little epistolary novel by playwright Mark Dunn titled Ella Minnow Pea. The story, written with Oulipian playfulness, tells of a wonderful, language-loving community that prides itself on its vocabulary and creative use of many letters of the alphabet in every sentence. The town loved words and letters so much that they built a monument to the pangram, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," which is a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. One day, the "Z" tile falls off of the monument, and the island's government takes it as a bad omen--a solemn sign--that the Z should be banished from their language. A law is decreed forbidding the use of Z, which most people found to be a nuisance, but tolerable. In fact, they enjoyed the challenge of thinking up clever words or phonetic spellings to replace the common ones. Little by little, by unfortunate disaster, more letters fall from the monument, which leads to further banishments of language (as well as banishments and punishments for the people who break the laws).

Since this is an epistolary novel, the story is told through the letters the characters send to each other, and the letters become continually more creative as the characters search desperately for ways to regain their freedom of speech and language. One of the most darling moments of the book is when our protagonist, Ella Minnow Pea, has no option left but to sign her name
"LMNOP," as those are the only letters left hanging on the monument.

There's much more to the story, and I won't give away the ending, as it is a precious tale of love, creativity, and language that you would want to experience for yourself. But, I wanted to mention Ella Minnow Pea because I encountered another book in a similar vein called The Wonderful O by James Thurber. I was able to read it all in one sitting a few days ago while I waited for my husband to get out of a meeting.

Thurber's short children's book, originally published in 1957, has just been republished this year as part of the New York Review Children's Collection with illustrations by Marc Simont. As the story goes, two bad men, Littlejack and Black meet up with similar intentions--to seek treasure by sailing to a remote island on Black's ship, the
Aeiu. He explains that he hates the letter "O" and therefore named his ship a word with all the vowels except O. With the help of a very vague map, Littlejack and Black sail Aeiu to the island and demand that the islanders give them all of their gems and treasures. When the islanders claim that they know of no such treasure, the bad men and their crew ransack the island, destroying everything in their paths that contains a letter O, even books. Furthermore, Black takes over the island and decrees that O must be "o"mitted from the language. Just like in Ella Minnow Pea, the community affected by the loss of letters attempts to overthrow the leadership to win back their rights and freedoms of speech.

Unlike Mark Dunn, Thurber does not attempt to write without using certain letters--in this case, O. In fact, he probably uses more O's than usual in order to show how beautiful the letter can be in our language, and how elegant and smooth it sounds in words of all kinds. Here is one of my favorite passages that demonstrates his style well:


"Methinks the people have a loathing for your voice and for your song," said Littlejack.

"I'll take away from them," said Black, "everything that plays and has an O."

And so the following morning the crew went from house to house, seizing violins and cellos, trombones and horns and oboes, pianos, harpsichords, and clavichords, accordions and melodeons, bassoons and saxophones, and all the other instruments with O's, up to and including the woodwinds. A man and his wife who loved to play duets on mandolin and glockenspiel drifted apart. Children, forbidden the use of combs, could no longer play tunes on combs with tissue paper. The crew spent the afternoon breaking up an old calliope they had found rusting in a field, and taking apart a carillon.

"All they have is fifes and drums and cymbals," gloated Black.

"And zithers and guitars," said Littlejack. "And dulcimers and spinets, and bugles, harps and trumpets."

"Much good they'll get from these," said Black, "or any others. I haven't finished with the O's in music, in harmony and melody, that is, and compositions. They'll have no score, and what is more, no orchestra, or podium, or baton, and no conductor. They can't play symphonies, or rhapsodies, sonatas or concerti. I'll take away their oratorios and choirs and choruses, and all their soloists, their baritones and tenors and sopranos, their altos and contraltos and accompanists. All they'll have is the funeral march, the chant and anthem, and the dirge, and certain snatches."

"They'll still have serenades," said Littlejack.

Black made an evil and impatient gesture. "You can't serenade a lady on a balcony," he said, "if there isn't any balcony. Let them hum their hymns and lisp their litanies." Black's eyes began to glow as he names O-names that would have to go: "Scherzo, largo, and crescendo, allegro and diminuendo. Let the lyric writers have their Night in June. Much good it'll do 'em without the moon."

Both of these books are clever and fun to read. They intrigue our minds and remind us how beautiful words can be when they are unrestricted, unfettered by lowest-common-denominator standards of vocabulary, and free to play and create. I recommend both of these books, and I also recommend that you read aloud!

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