I / [ɑɪ] / Rising diphthong
I hear the one that starts low and far back, like the ‘a’ in ‘father,’ as the dictionaries tell us in their pronunciation guides. The vowel rises up and forward, in a negative slope. It stops when it can go no farther, confined by the limits of lingual gymnastics and mouth space. I imagine your lips moving from an open oval to a wide smile, not pressed together in a flat line.
L /[l]/ Alveolar lateral approximant
Left or right—everyone has a preference. I’m thinking of how you nicknamed me your little southpaw while I take my place next to Mom in the pew. “Lucy,” she whispers. Mom’s like me—her mouth tilts down to the left by a millimeter or two when she says my name, nearly impossible to see. You were the opposite, but the liquid that lives somewhere between vowel and consonant always sounded the same as mine. Little Lucy, I think I hear you say.
Various graphemes /[ə]/ Schwa
A vowel that sounds like vanilla tastes reminds me of the milkshakes you used to make on weekends. “Vanilla is so boring,” you said once. I laughed and let you add chocolate to mine. Now, looking at your stillness and listening to your silence, I wonder where we would be without the schwa, the colorless sound that makes the difference between love and life and leave.
V /[v]/ Voiced labiodental fricative
“Very funny, Dad,” I said when you snapped the picture of me on the swing last summer. You got the timing completely wrong and caught me in mid-consonant. I’m frozen in pixels, all upper teeth and lower lip, my mouth a still shot of an f-bomb photo bomb. Did you get me on the first word or the second? I try to remember as I walk around your house, touching old photographs, wishing they would sing to me, but cameras don’t capture the hidden vibrations of vocal folds. Grief and grieve are identical in pictures.
Y /[j]/ Voiceless palatal approximant
“Yeah,” I tell the fifth mourner who asks if I’m all right, if I’m sure I wouldn’t like to come over for supper afterwards. She asks again, because the answer I give traps itself somewhere in the dark space of my mouth, unseen and unheard. Yell if you want to, you say from the urn on the mantle. I want to, but my yells don’t find their way out of me.
U /[u]/ High back rounded vowel
Oodles of Pyrex and Corningware litter the kitchen, but I don’t touch them. Instead, I pour a glass of something red and make absent-minded circles on the rim the way you taught me, until the glass hums. Back in the living room, with the guests and mourners and well-wishers gone, I find my voice. “I love you,” I say out loud, and I hear your urn whisper the six sounds back to me.
—Christina Dalcher is a linguist and novelist. She doesn’t own a mobile phone; she hasn’t watched television since Seinfeld aired. Home is the land of Styron, crabs, and barbecue. Her short bits can be found in Maudlin House, The Molotov Cocktail, and Pidgeonholes. Alec Shane of Writers House represents Christina’s long work.