Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Vowel Alternation in Ulysses

How Can We Look at Vowel Alternations?

There are several established frameworks with which we can approach the significance and/or origin of vowel alternation sets. I have grouped these into two superclasses, realist and anti-realist, corresponding to two of the major (opposed) theoretical traditions of interpreting language in Ulysses. Within this schema, the realist frameworks include representation of perceptual/aural effects and representation of language change, while the anti-realist frameworks include suggestions of authorial control (language manipulability, artifice), conscious participation in literary tradition, and the precedence of narrative structure over content. Below are concise introductions to these courses of interpretation; see Sample Close Readings of Vowel Alternations for an illustrative application of each approach.

A. Realist (Representational) Frameworks

"Ulysses is a book of representation, not just of life in 1904, but of the physical power of language [...] Letters are fertile" (Knowles 24).

The following ideas are based on an interpretation of Joyce’s language as functional and content-driven. They should be used to explicate vowel alternation sets that work to signify some feature of the real world or real life experience.

I. Perceptual/Aural

Vowels, as the most sonorous segments of speech, have a significant effect on the auditory quality of a word—both objectively, dictating the majority shape of the sound wave, and subjectively, structuring perception by a human ear. Accordingly, structuralist theory has explained successful linguistic signification as a listener’s recognition of the organized wave tones of vowels in context of the unorganized, noisy "ground" waves of consonants, where "each sign blends noise and tone" (McArthur 636). Since vowels constitute the audibly figurative portion of the sign, we should expect a change in vowel not only to influence the semantics of signification, but, probably more substantially, to condition a distinct change in the phonetic experience of the listener (more so than would a change in consonant, since consonants are aurally perceived as backdrop rather than foreground). This auditory robustness of vowels suggests that vowel alternation sets may function in terms of sound. Such avenues of representative sound-function may include semi-lexical onomatopoeia, characterization of dialect, and investment with musical properties.

a. Semi-lexical onomatopoeia

In "Joyce’s Noises," Stephen Attridge explores several types of sound-symbolism employed in Joyce’s fiction, including lexical onomatopoeia, non-lexical onomatopoeia, and an in-between category, here referred to as semi-lexical onomatopoeia. Lexical onomatopoeia describes cases where we have a conventionalized English word that aims to mimic the auditory qualities of its sound-referent (in often minor ways, these words sound like what they are). Non-lexical onomatopoeia describes the combination of alphabet letters in novel ways, not always following the phonological constraints that usual govern sound-clusters, to create phonetic combinations that may more accurately represent a sound. Semi-lexical onomatopoeia, which device Attridge locates in vowel-alternation sets, occurs when real or near-real lexical items are invoked for their sounds rather than for their dictionary definitions, representing the intersection or boundary-testing of lexical and nonlexical onomatopoeia. That is, recognizable dictionary words functioning as semi-lexical onomatopoeia retain primarily their phonetic, as opposed to their semantic, values: "what is important are the plosives with which the items begin and end and the modification in the vowels across the series, rather than the fact that we can find all these strings of letters in an English dictionary" (Attridge). In order to analyze a word or vowel alternation set as semi-lexical onomatopoeia, we need to establish that 1) it is a verifiable English word, but 2) it’s usual definition doesn’t really make sense in the literal context of the sentence, and 3) it is desirable/expected/reasonable to interpret the word or words in this context as either a sound effect or as a character's mental processing of sound.

b. Dialect

Distinct versions of a language which are mutually intelligible but noticeably individuated (on the basis of lexical, syntactic, or phonetic features), tend to be significantly differentiable on the phonetic basis of their vowels. This vowel-based dialect contrast holds particularly true among regional variants of English, both within and between countries (Ladefoged; see also Vowels Appendix). In addition to regional language varieties, class and gender contrasts can also set up a social situation in which two speakers’ vowels will be articulated differently, based on a difference in cultural affiliation. Criticism like Margaret Norris’s "The Music of Joyce’s Vernacular Voices," Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s "The Ambiguous Status of Native Speakers and Language Learners in Ulysses," and Eleni Loukopoulou's "London, Language and Empire in ‘Oxen of the Sun’ of James Joyce’s Ulysses" have focused on representations of non-standard English in the novel, while work like Scott W. Klein’s "Speech Lent By Males" and Derek Attridge’s "Molly’s Flow" has explored sociolectic difference in the gendered speech of Ulysses.

Joyce utilizes several stylistic strategies for representing these socially- or regionally-specific versions of language, which are realistically based on the linguistic differences used in the analyses of dialectologists. These include: jargon/slang vocabulary, non-standard grammar, orthographically overt (presumably phonetic) permutations to spelling (and thereby, pronunciation), and described but not transcribed images of dialect (as with manner adverbs, or the stage directions in "Circe"). Though orthographic changes are most obviously relevant to close-reading of vowel alternation sets, the other stylistic indications of dialect may be useful for comparing non-contiguous sets (see, for instance, example AIb. in Sample Close Readings of Vowel Alternations).

c. Music

Many critics, like Derek (1999), Allen (2007) and Norris (2009), have noted the lyric, sing-songy quality of language in Ulysses. In some cases, Joyce creates this musical effect with vowel alternations—capitalizing on the change in tone/pitch to create melodious variation. Although certain episodes, like "Sirens" (U 11), aggressively prompt us to think about how linguistic patterns can become musical, musical vowel alternation sets are also apparent in less explicitly music-oriented episodes. Note that in addition to aural musicality, scholars have also commented on Joyce’s use of language to create structural musicality (rhythm, theme, variation, etc); I do not consider this use of music as a literary device to be content- or plot-based. This should be considered a manifestation of BIII below, as it does not attempt to capture any audible referent, but rather uses a borrowed theoretical tradition of organization to construct matrix narrative structure.

II. Language Change

Historical linguistics lends us another way to approach vowel alternations, as potentially representative of diachronic dynamism. Under Yee’s (1997) view, instead of indicating the whimsy, falliability, and non-functionality of forms with slippery vowels, we can understand vowel change/fluidity as a realistic, condensed mimesis of the (arbitrary) historical changeability of sounds (58-67). (To find more information about these aspects of historical linguistics, research keywords include sound change laws and the Neogrammarians’ regularity hypothesis.) Rather than intending to prevent our synchronic comprehension, cycling through the vowels may remind us that signs, in all their arbitrariness, continue to operate as a semantic contract between users, even amidst table-turning diachronic processes like the Great Vowel Shift, which refigured the entire English vowel system from its medieval state to our present day conception. See discussion AII of quake/quack vowel alternation in Sample Close Readings of Vowel Alternations for an example of how we can use historical linguistics to think about specific vowel alternation sets in Ulysses.

B. Anti-Realist (Non-Representational) Frameworks

"The letters on the page [...] are unstable and uncertain, making an irritated text. [...] The indeterminacy of the text proceeds from the small differences and slight opacities of simple letters at the most basic level in the large novel, and thus this visual indeterminacy precedes those hermeneutic uncertainties of other analyses" (Gottfried 7).

These frameworks are part of a meta-literary/meta-linguistic critical tradition, tending to read Joyce’s language in Ulysses as futile, ridiculous, broken signification, or at least as language for language’s sake, divorced from the storyline and/or from real life. As anti-realist Ulyssian theory applies to vowel alternations, we can consider them moments of focused authorial control, prime opportunities for allusion, and plot-less elements of narrative structure--none of which purport to depict tangible, attested phenomena from the physical world (as do the representations of sound, sound-processing, or diachronic sound change in Section A).

I. Authorial Control

Saint Augustine (whose work is frequently applicable in Gifford’s reading of Ulysses, for example) argued for the inviolability of God’s word in contrast to the noisy malleability of human words, which the writer or speaker is in a position to arbitrarily form and reform as he chooses, without effecting real creation or destruction. As explained by Balsamo, Dante coins this brand of power "poetic authority," elucidating a "figure of the linguistic bind" in which the verb aueio can become our standard sequence AEIOU through a series of authorial manipulations; these ideas are a useful metaphor for understanding the self-constructed, agential formation of Stephen’s poetic identity and the foundation of the "A.E.I.O.U." pun (U 9.213, Balsamo 74-85). It may also be a useful theory for considering the permutation across vowel alternation sets, since Joyce-as-author has omnipotent (but ultimately ineffective, or artificial) authority to form, reform, and deform the words on his page. In this sense, the activity of vowel alternation implies non-referentiality—or at least, precludes an interpretation of strict referentiality—for Joyce’s language, as mutable words cannot be relied upon to construct a confident universe. Rather than accomplishing signification, here the member of a vowel alternation set draw our attention outside of the plotline to the process of composition, instigating a meta-perspective that makes transparent the shakeable artifice of the world of the novel.

II. Allusion

This framework draws on the central question of another vein of Balsamo’s (2007) analysis: how do you engage with the literary DNA which you inherit? (For even the reformation of vowels starts with some initial linguistic substance; necessarily you are in conversation with the layers of this foundation when you start to change it.) The spatial-temporal accidence of birth determines which literary canon one must contend with and respond to, and thus, authorial control is limited by the linguistic materials of literary predecessors, which have structured the author’s education and will structure his audience’s reception of new work. But, the author remains unlimited with respect to the invocation or rejection of previous language and ideas, free to mangle, co-opt, and intersplice as he chooses. When an author makes his engagement with the canon explicit, such as by borrowing a well-known word or phrase from a literary giant, we recognize this as allusion. This literary device is a well-suited parallel to the phenomenon of vowel alternation, since in both cases a recognizable structure is repeated with elements of slight modification, adapted to the new context. Vowel alternation sets in Ulysses may serve to highlight single allusions or groups of allusions made to exterior texts (as in example BII from Sample Close Readings of Vowel Alternations), or they may serve to allude to other interior moments where alternate tokens occur (this second self-allusive possibility relates to framework BIII below).

III. Narrative Structure

An interpretation of structural function applies especially to non-contiguous vowel alternation sets, in which the forms engage in a linking, cross-textual conversation. Here the literary device doesn’t necessarily contribute to the plot in a logical way, but does contribute to the novel’s cohesion in a subconscious, metempsychotic way. Important keywords with the same consonant structure belong in this category, which as a set may not serve a unified semantic/thematic purpose, but are noticeable permutations and may contribute a sense of overarching structural rhythm to the work (or the sentence, or the episode, depending on the scope of the device’s implementation) as a whole. Such use of vowel alternations may be considered self-allusive (see BII above), or even organizationally musical (see AIc above), although in this case musicality does not imply aural sensuality.