'W' Considered Harmful

Not the magazine and not even the former president. But the letter ‘W’ itself. The letter ‘W’, 23rd in the English alphabet, is unique in two ways: it is the only letter whose name is more than one syllable, and also the only letter whose name doesn’t include the sound it makes. 

The fact that ‘W’ takes 3 syllables to say bothers me. Even Wikipedia’s entry on ‘W’ points out, twice, that the abbreviation www requires nine syllables to say. Crazy. So I wondered, how often is it the case that words that start with W (hereafter W-words) have fewer syllables than the letter W (double-yew)

Syllabification in general is a hard problem in English, but fortunately I don’t have to solve it. The Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Pronouncing Dictionary provides the pronunciations for over 125,000 words. I say pronunciations, plural, because words can be pronounced in a variety of different ways (e.g. fire can be pronounced to rhyme with higher, or in a single syllable. Only 41 W-words in the CMU dict have pronunciations with different numbers of syllables). Using the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary, it’s possible to count syllables in a word in a short (if cryptic) Python function, courtesy of Jordan Boyd-Graber — I found it on the nltk-users google group:

from curses.ascii import isdigit 
from nltk.corpus import cmudict 

d = cmudict.dict() # get the CMU Pronouncing Dict

def nsyl(word): 
    """return the max syllable count in the case of multiple pronunciations"""
    return max([len([y for y in x if isdigit(y[-1])]) for x in d[word.lower()]])

So, now that we’ve got a syllable counter, let’s get all the W-words in the CMU dictionary, and see what the syllable distribution looks like.

import pylab

w_words = dict([(w, nsyl(w)) for w in d.keys() if w[0] == 'w'])
worth_abbreviating = [(k,v) for (k,v) in w_words.iteritems() if v > 3]
pylab.hist(w_words.values())

Only 101 W-words in the CMU dictionary (of 3805 total W-words) have more than 3 syllables. That’s 2.6%. Here’s a sampling of the words where using W to abbreviate them actually saves syllables: wagnerian, wallpapering, washingtonians, weatherperson, workaholic. So, by all means, call a meeting of the Wagnerian Wallpapering Workaholic Weatherperson Washingtonians the WWWWW. It will save time. Otherwise, consider not using an abbreviation. Or looking for synonyms. 

Suggestions for further work:

Monday, February 28, 2011 — 23 notes   ()
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