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warren clements: word play

The vowel is a powerful instrument. Although some names and even common nouns are spelled without vowels (an example is cwm : a Welsh term for valley, more helpfully spelled coomb or combe ), most words would be lost without a, e, i, o, u and, when it chooses to be a vowel, y. So, when writers deny themselves the use of one or more vowels for dramatic effect, the results are fascinating.

Exhibit A is the recently expanded edition of Eunoia , originally published in 2001 and written by Christian Bök, now teaching in the English department at the University of Calgary. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't recognize "eunoia." The closest it comes is eunomia, a variant of eunomy, "a political condition of good law well-administered." (The combining form eu is Greek for good.) Eunoia, Bök writes, means "beautiful thinking," and is "the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels."

There is a parlour game to be played here, and I would nominate for inclusion "suoidea," which is one letter longer than eunoia but has the virtue of containing all five vowels (if you ignore the uncommitted y) in reverse alphabetical order. That word isn't in the OED either, but Willard R. Espy defined it in his 1983 book, The Garden of Eloquence , as "the name of the superfamily of pigs and peccaries."

The point is that Bök, inspired by earlier writers who operated with severe, self-imposed formal restraints, set himself the challenge of using only one of the vowels in each chapter. Pieces from which certain letters are excluded are called lipograms, which has nothing to do with the great Chinese poet Li Po but derives from the Greek lipogrammatis (lacking a letter), blending leipein (leave) and gramma (letter).

Wordsmith Robert Hendrickson, a fount of information on the subject, says the first creator of lipograms was the Greek lyric poet Lasus in 548 BC, but the text that really knocked everyone's socks off was Odyssey of Tryphiodorus , a Greek work containing 26 books, each of which left out one letter from A to Z. In 1969, French author Georges Perec wrote La Disparition (translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void ), which contained no "e" in the text. Ernest Vincent Wright had achieved the same result in his 1939 book, Gadsby: Champion of Youth .

But Bök took on the herculean challenge of using only "e" for one chapter, which begins, "Enfettered, these sentences repress free speech." The chapter on "o," continuing the literary theme, begins: "Loops on bold fonts now form lots of words for books." Bök even manages to get a chapter out of "u," which deprives him of so many options that the sentences here are necessarily blunter: "Kultur spurns Ubu - thus Ubu pulls stunts." Much of the vocabulary in the u-only universe is rude, which explains the observation on the book's cover that "a unique personality for each vowel soon emerges: A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, U is obscene."

There must have been something in the water the year Eunoia appeared, because in 2001 Mark Dunn also published his novel Ella Minnow Pea . It consists of epistles written by inhabitants of an island whose rulers revere the man who composed every typist's favourite line, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When letters from that phrase begin falling from the island's cenotaph, the rulers take it as an omen, and forbid islanders to use those letters in their correspondence. Letter after letter keeps falling, consonants as well as vowels, but Dunn isn't as rigorous as Bök; writers may change the spelling of words to avoid using forbidden letters. Thus, near book's end: "I miss ewe all teeplee. I am sorree to atmit, Momma, tat I am presentlee a snoop!"

As Bök might (and did) write in the ultimate e-book, "The text deletes selected letters."