Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Vowel Alternation in Ulysses

Why Vowel Alternations?

Joyce provides us with several obvious meta-moments that draw attention to the novel’s vowel alternations, suggesting that words differing only in their vowels form a linked set, ripely juxtapositioned for analytic inspection.

For example, Bloom’s constant meditation on the similarity-with-difference of his wife and daughter is concisely figured in "Hades" as a slight mutation in the medial vowels of their names: "Molly. Milly. Same thing watered down" (U 6.87). The orthographic and phonetic change between their names can be understood to represent, or even constitute the basis for, Bloom’s perceptions of dilution. Literally and metaphorically, Milly is a "watered down" version of her mother in the sense that her genetic composition and disposition are not a strict duplicate of Molly’s, having been moderated by Bloom’s own nature-nurture contributions. In technical terms, what Bloom describes as a change in concentration is an alternation between the open-mid back rounded vowel [ɔ], spelled ‘o,’ and the close/close-mid front unrounded vowel [ɪ], spelled ‘i.’ Based on the cultural and morphological patterns of English, Milly’s linguistic features are diminutive in comparison with Molly’s. Analyses of sound-symbolism in English note that [i] and [ɪ] are consistently used to name smaller or weaker referents, whereas low and back vowels like [o], [ɑ], and [ɔ] are consistently associated with larger, heavier, more impactful referents, and the suffix -illi, pronounced [ɪlli] as in "Milly," is a diminutive borrowing from Latin, used to indicate a miniature or derivative of the root that it attaches to (in this case, the consonant M, which the novel positions as Molly/Marion’s basic alphabetic identity). The M_lly minimal pair—a highly visible, direct, and intentional contrast, which Bloom partially explicates for us by characterizing the relationship between the pair as "watered down"—establishes a precedent for words with identical consonant structures but altered vowels to be necessarily considered a set of analogous "same thing[s]" participating in some type of fluid, transformational discourse.

Another self-conscious entry point, suggesting the volatility of vowels within a fixed consonant structure, comes with the vowel-less figuration of Lenehan and Mulligan’s names in "Cyclops." Ironically, the sonorous segments are omitted just as the characters begin a performance of lyric sonority: "Considerable amusement was caused by the favorite Dublin streetsingers L-n-h-n and M-ll-g-n who sang The Night before Larry was Stretched in their usual mirthprovoking fashion" (U 12.541-3). (Further ironic is the symbolical condensation of the performers by means of their abbreviated names, in contrast to the violent physical elongation of their song’s subject.) Like the Molly/Milly example, this moment shows us that consonants form the conceptual nucleus of a word, dictating a concrete foundation for the identity of the referent. However, here the nuances of that implication are somewhat different. Joyce’s altogether removal of the vowels, marked with a minus/dash that emphasizes their nullity, is not expected to impede our understanding of who these singing characters are. Rather than effecting a meaningful change through alternation, here the non-impact of omission suggests that the vowels, while alterable, and in fact, by virtue of their alterable-ness, may ultimately be meaningless bystanders to signification. Therefore, this example affirms the underlying set-relationship of words with consistent consonant structures, but evokes a more dysfunctional, pessimistic attitude towards the communicative consequence of vowel alternation. If read in this way, the irrelevancy or infertility of vowels may be interpreted as evidence of linguistic futility, fueling the anti-realist conception of Joyce’s language in Ulysses.

As with many other formulaic constructions, Joyce gives us easily recognizable instances like these to initiate our awareness of the presence and productivity of vowel alternation sets as a literary device, which then continue to appear with varying levels of subtlety elsewhere in the text. In the case of vowel alternations, we can consider the more tangible manifestations those in which the set is contiguous (or at least contained to one sentence/passage), for example, t_p (U 11.705-09), whereas the less-tangible manifestations are those where the set is made up of significant vocabulary scattered across a page, episode, or even episodes, for example b_t.

In addition to proximity of the words, degree of consistency in consonant structure may also influence the relative obliqueness of a particular vowel alternation set. For example, in "Proteus," Stephen’s footsteps as he walks along Sandymount strand comprise an ambiguous set: "Crush, crack, crick, crick" (U 3.19). Should we include only the ‘a’ [æ] / ‘i’ [ɪ] forms, which have a strictly cr_ck [krVk] consonant structure, in our notion of the set proper? Or, does the ‘u’ [ʌ] form, despite its slightly different cr_sh [krVʃ] structure, also belong to the set? Syntactically, "crush" certainly forms a set-like list with "crack" and "crick," and from a typological linguistic perspective, a set containing ‘i,’ ‘a,’ and ‘u’ is much more stable and likely than a set containing only ‘i’ and ‘a.’ This claim is based on the study of efficiency and balance in different languages’ vowel inventories, where the tripartite i-a-u contrast is the most cross-linguistically desirable, most frequently utilized vowel system "because the three vowels i, a u are as auditorily distinct as possible, [therefore] they are very effective ways of distinguishing words, and many languages make use of them [as an] efficient means of communication" (Ladefoged 37). But, if we compare the different word-final consonants from a similarly technical standpoint, we see a progression from the unvoiced alveolar fricative [ʃ] to the unvoiced velar plosive [k], requiring a backwards movement in place of articulation and a strengthening in manner of articulation (also called fortition, indicating an increase in obstruction to airflow). Both of these changes are considered unexpected, rather than natural—fortition because, regardless of phonetic context, it demands more effort on the part of the speaker, and articulatory backing because in this phonetic context the vowel progression from u > a > i shows fronting, so if anything we would expect the final consonant to likewise move from back to front (assimilation), rather than from front to back (dissimilation). Given these conflicting linguistic considerations, we are perhaps unable to reach a clear verdict on whether "crush, crack, crick" constitute a vowel alternation set. However, even our inability to confidently reconcile or categorize the situation illustrates one of the novel’s major themes: desire without fulfillment or resolution. Thus, the words may be best read as a frustrated almost-set, too tempting and attractive to dismiss, yet impossible to designate as inclusively complete. Though more convoluted than other proximal vowel alternation sets, I would argue that this is an excellent example of how ambiguous sets, which we might be inclined to dismiss, can be revealed to function as a productive literary device.