How important are vowels? Some languages, such as Welsh, don’t look as if they use any.
The Welsh word for hospital is ysbyty, and here are some Welsh place names: Bwlchgwyn, Ystwyth or Cwmystwyth – they look very hard to pronounce until you realise that w and y are used as vowels. I was there recently and was looking for a place called Ystradgynlais but didn’t know how to pronounce it when asking for directions. Shame on me, my father was Welsh.
The Slavic languages, although they have vowels in their alphabets, have many words that have no vowels. Try saying the Croatian words prst ‘finger’, grm ‘bush’ or krv ‘blood’ – they look impossible to pronounce but the speaker knows which vowels to use.
On the other hand, there are others, such as the Polynesian languages, that have an abundance of vowels. All Hawaiian words end in vowels and every consonant is followed by a vowel. Hence aloha and place names such as Oahu. There’s also a Honolulu suburb called Aiea. The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa. Uluru is the traditional indigenous name for Ayers Rock.
For some reason, all the continents of the world have names that are rich in vowels: Africa, Asia, Europe, America and the winner – Oceania.
When compiling crosswords, we need to have a variety of vowels and consonants, and those short words with lots of vowels are very useful. Words like tiara, eerie, tibia, sauna and taboo crop up more often than words like match, straw, fresh or chest.
You will sometimes come across clues for Native American place names such as Oahu, Idaho, Ohio and Iowa. Ohio comes from the Seneca tongue and means ‘good river’. We are not an American company but we feel these names are familiar. The American film and music industry is known worldwide, so we hear these names in popular song or film titles, such as the film My Private Idaho, or the song Banks Of The Ohio.
If you want to test your ability to read words without vowels, have a go at the Vowel Surgery puzzle on the Crossed Wires page opposite.