Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Vowel Alternation in Ulysses

What are vowel alternation sets in Ulysses?

Most readers pick up on the prevalence of rhymes, homophones, and similar wordplay in Ulysses. Joyce also creates subtler effects using pairs and sets of words that have near-identical spellings, differing only in their vowels.

Consider, for example, the first line in the song of The Artane Orphans of "Circe": "You hig, you hog, you dirty dog!" (U 15.1890), where, in addition to the lyricism of the hog/dog rhyme (based, of course, on a shared vowel and ending consonant sound), we also get a lyrical effect from the hig/hog pairing, instead based on a structure of shared beginning and end sounds with contrasting vowel sounds in between. We can thus formally describe this pair as a vowel alternation set with the consonant structure h_g and two tokens, i pronounced [ɪ] and o pronounced [a] (See the Linguistic Background on Vowels and the Vowels Appendix below for a guide to IPA vowel transcription conventions).

But, as gets asked often in and about Ulysses, "What does it mean?" Here, I provide resources for exploring the possible ways that these vowel alternation sets may function as a literary device in the novel.