Uncle Jerrold and the schwa

Sep 8, 2010 at 12:00 am

"If you say to any thinking person, 'Let us form a society for the invention of new and subtler words', he will first of all object that it is the idea of a crank, and then probably say that our present words, properly handled, will meet all difficulties. ... [T]his argument, like most of the arguments when one suggests changing anything, is a long-winded way of saying that what is must be." —George Orwell, "New Words"

To look at him, Uncle Jerrold does not smack of the street-corner prophet. He is tall, strapping, and corn-fed handsome. Recently turned 40, his face is preternaturally boyish, with full cheeks and mirthful eyes. His all-American good looks bring to mind a superannuated quarterback, though his present uniform — corduroy jacket, oxford-cloth shirt, and black tasseled loafers — is that of a college professor. On especially sunny days he sports a jaunty straw fedora, which he says he stole from a dead man. 

It is Uncle Jerrold's life goal to see the schwa added to the English alphabet. Though virtually unknown outside the world of linguistics, the "schwa" is among the most common vowel sounds in the English language: the sound "uh." The first part of the word "alone" is a schwa, as is the last syllable of the word "sofa." In the International Phonetic Alphabet, an alphabet composed entirely of sounds, the symbol for the schwa resembles an inverted "e." Jerrold contends that the schwa's rightful place is not at the end, but at the beginning of the alphabet. Pressed as to why, he will say only, "Because that's where it belongs." 

Uncle Jerrold pursues his campaign for the schwa from a windswept corner at the foot of a vacant office tower, just across from Campus Martius. To draw in passersby, he employs a bulky contraption he terms the "dumb-ball machine." The dumb-ball machine is a portable tool cart, consisting of a shelf, a table and a black-and-white striped parasol. Jerrold says he bought it from a Gypsy woman on Schoenherr and Eight Mile. He sets up the cart on a motley woolen carpet, which he rolls out over the granite sidewalk. Several times of late, he has wheeled the dumb-ball machine down to the plaza only to find his regular spot usurped by a hot dog stand. He is presently weighing a relocation. 

It is a balmy summer afternoon. A fleet of cottony white clouds trolls over downtown, and Jerrold is at the machine's helm. Affixed to the contraption with a pair of magnets is a laminated, 8-1/2-by-11-inch sign.





When introducing the schwa to the public, Jerrold favors a soft-sale method, letting his students approach him. Awaiting an audience, he stands quietly behind the cart, back straight, legs set in a dignified contrapposto. When he makes eye contact with a pedestrian, he nods, smiles, and mouths "hello," but says nothing and will only leave his station if the person shows further interest. Although genial and polished when discussing the schwa, Jerrold is not a natural extrovert, and the smile he gives strangers is tight and shy, almost stoic. He considers himself a teacher, but is still becoming comfortable with the exposure innate to this sort of public education.
Most of the 9-to-5ers offer Jerrold a curt, dubious glance, and hustle past without breaking stride. But, now and again, someone overpowered by curiosity will find himself pulled in. 

A bald, middle-aged black man in wire-rim glasses approaches warily. A few yards from the dumb-ball machine, he stops. He looks at the sign, looks at Jerrold, then looks back at the sign. Jerrold walks over to him.

"Hi there," Jerrold says. "Before we start, there's something I need to ask you." Jerrold leans in close and drops his voice to a whisper. "Have you met Uncle Jerrold?"
The man bugs his eyes and jumps back. "Who's Uncle Jerrold?"

Jerrold smiles exultantly. "I'm Uncle Jerrold!" he says, jabbing a thumb into his chest. He throws out a hand, which the man takes, hesitantly.

Professorial demeanor aside, Jerrold delivers his teachings on the schwa with a huckster's brio. He credits his skill as a salesman to an adolescence spent pitching used cars with his father, a dealer in Pontiac. Yet, under the expansive gesturing and the quick laughter, there's something undeniably sincere about Jerrold that his audience picks up on and responds to. Uncle Jerrold radiates the happy energy of a true believer, and it's mildly contagious. 

"I'm campaigning to win for us all a new letter in the alphabet," Jerrold says cheerfully. He hands the man a small white leaflet from a large stack on the dumb-ball machine's table. 

The man stares at the paper. The leaflet has two sides. The text on one side is taken from the Oxford English Dictionary

(shwa) noun

1. A mid-central neutral vowel, typically occurring in unstressed syllables, as the final vowel of the English sofa. Also called indeterminate vowel
2. The symbol (ə) used to represent an unstressed neutral vowel and, in some systems of phonetic transcription, a stressed mid-central vowel, as in but.
[German, from Hebrew sewa, neutral. Probably from Syriac sewayya, equal.]

The man blinks a few times.

"The schwa," Jerrold says, gazing intently at the man, "is also known as the 'indeterminate' or 'neutral' sound. No matter what language you speak or what culture you belong to, when you're confused or you're in doubt, you make the schwa sound" — he cuts a perplexed face — "'uhhh?'"

The man shifts his own expression to match Jerrold's. His perplexity, however, appears deeply felt.

"I'm a writer," Jerrold continues, "And I've asked around, and people tell me that if I invent up a word, I get to spell it however I want. Right?"

The man's nods faintly.

"Right," Jerrold says, nodding fervently. "So, I'm inventing new words, using the schwa. Now, if you'll look on the other side of your sheet ..."

The man flips over his leaflet.

We'll have

"OK, now, just plug in the schwa sound, wherever you see a schwa," Jerrold prompts, his tone that of the patient schoolmarm. "So, if the schwa sounds like 'uh', then that word there would be pronounced. ..."

The man, brow knotted in concentration, attempts to sounds it out: "Fuh ... und ... uhh ... get ... huh ... Fund ... uh ... gethuh. Funduh ..."

Jerrold's eyes twinkle. This is his favorite part. 

The man is silent a moment and then his face lights up. "Fundungethuh! Fun together! Fundungethuh! " He throws back his head, roaring with laughter. "Hey, hey, that's slick as hell!"

"We'll have funduhgethuh," Jerrold says triumphantly, in his best Brooklyn brogue. "Tinkuhboutit." 

"You know," the man says, composing himself a bit, "I'm actually trying to be a writer too."

Jerrold turns instantly sober. "Well, then you need to know about the schwa. As a writer, you're gonna want this in your tool bag."

The man shakes Jerrold's hand, this time vigorously, and strolls off into the canyons of the financial district.

"Feel free to use the schwa in any of your words!" Jerrold shouts after him.

Flushed and sweating lightly in the heat, Jerrold removes his fedora and begins to reshape its fold with his fingers. His face shines with satisfaction. After particularly successful lessons, Jerrold often wears a post-coital sort of glow. Indeed, to Uncle Jerrold, the ultimate reward for his exertions is the knowledge that he has worked wonders on another person's neurochemistry. 

"I don't need everyone who passes me to stop," Jerrold says. "If I have one person stop and get their eyes to light up — where they have that 'snap!' — that's enough for me. I like to see that synaptic connection in their brain, because I've made that connection in their brain. I've changed how they thought."

Uncle Jerrold says that he discovered the schwa (in the sense that a man discovers a deity or a moral calling) several years ago, when he took a job teaching English to schoolchildren in Vietnam. During his training, a supervisor asked that he use the International Phonetic Alphabet to assist his students in their pronunciation. An amateur philologist since childhood, Jerrold had encountered the schwa before, in his dictionary, but had detected in it no special significance. In Vietnam, however, he learned that, of the 20 characters in the phonetic alphabet, only the schwa was granted a proper name. This intrigued him.
Last fall, after a long, self-directed course of study, Jerrold declared himself the schwa's foremost evangelist. For many, spreading the gospel of the schwa would have stopped at creating a Web page or founding a Facebook group. Jerrold, however, felt proper elucidation of the schwa's mysteries needed a flesh-and-blood emissary, a herald combining the requisite talents of St. Paul, Noam Chomsky and Billy Mays. Jerrold believed, too, that, as with most other world-historic movements, the schwa's ascension should begin in the streets. So, for several weeks last October, Jerrold spent his afternoons sojourning outside of Marwil Bookstore, near Wayne State, chatting up students and bibliophiles. Having not yet acquired the dumb-ball machine, Jerrold fixed his base of operations on the roof of a metal newspaper box, hanging his "Have You Heard About The Schwa?" sign from the stanchion of a nearby streetlight. "I was trying to get a feel for what it would take to meet the public, to really engage them on the schwa," Jerrold says. "All that time, I was wondering how to do it right, to really be a presence, so people don't just think you're a guy who hangs out on a newspaper box."

The most common question posed to Jerrold by recipients of his teachings is "Why?" Why does English need a new letter? Many, if not most passers-by express the opinion that English is complicated enough as it is, thank you; a new letter would only further confuse. Jerrold respectfully disagrees. English is a living thing, he counters, and in need of constant replenishment. A sclerotic language is a dead language — a new letter compels the creation of new words, leading to new avenues of thought. Well, why then, he is asked, did you pick the schwa? Jerrold's answer to this question is more complicated. 

Jerrold believes the schwa is among the most basic and prevalent of sounds, one whose use and meaning — the expression of perplexity — transcend race, ethnicity, nationality and religion. He contends that the schwa dates from the dawn of human speech. He will sometimes endeavor to illustrate this idea by acting out a scene from prehistory, in which cavemen, communicating by grunts, make only three sounds: an affirmative grunt for "yes", a negative grunt for "no", and a puzzled noise — "uhh?" — the schwa. And therein lies its importance: In a fractious age, the schwa remains common ground.

In truth, Jerrold's mission to carve out a permanent place in the English alphabet for the schwa is only a means of advancing a far grander project. With the advent of globalization and the Internet, Jerrold believes it inevitable that the world's thousands of languages will eventually evolve and coalesce into a single common tongue — a global language, one with its own alphabet, words and idioms, used by everyone, everywhere. The precise manner by which this magnificent transfiguration will come about remains hazy, but the shift will likely take a thousand years and a million voices, and will, Jerrold is confident, require the services of the schwa. 

"By adding the schwa, a universal sound, into the English alphabet, I'm moving native English speakers closer to the global community," Jerrold explains. "It's a trend that's already under way. I'm just helping it get there, providing a model for what you can do with language. I'm taking English officially where it's already unofficially going."

"Fundəgethə" and "tinkəboudit" are but two of dozens of neologisms that Uncle Jerrold has created to promote the schwa. Most of Jerrold's words are not pure inventions, but agglutinations — multiple words joined together to form a new word — with the schwa acting as a sort of linguistic adhesive. He likes to try his creations out on friends, seeing which ones stick. ("Fundzəlow," as in, "I'm out of a job and my fundzəlow," is the reigning champ.) Jerrold sees his development of new, schwa-based words not as a meddling into the natural evolution of language, but as a hastening of it. One could think of Jerrold as a sort of mad linguist, irradiating the English language with a strange new element in the hopes of seeing it mutate into something larger and more powerful.

What need is there for a new, global language? Jerrold argues that many if not most words, once fresh and vivid, have ossified, their definitions and associations dulled by time and overuse. This blunting of language, he theorizes, has inhibited our ability to think clearly, giving rise to countless misunderstandings and empty conflicts. 

"We have a lot of words that should be good words, but have lost their definitions," Jerrold says. "Take the word 'peace.' We say 'peace' in English all the time, but do we have any idea what it means? When greeting people, Palestinians says 'salam' and Israelis say 'shalom', both of which mean 'peace.' But they've been fighting for years! 'Peace' becomes just another meaningless concept. I'm hoping having a new word will be harder to misuse, to lie about." 

In place of such shopworn words as "peace," "salam" and "kumbaya", Jerrold offers "fundəgethə." The word is both an imperative, meaning either "relax!" or "share!" depending on the context, and a noun connoting some combination of "harmony," "good times," and "conviviality." His other words are designed to fill similar semantic voids. 

Jerrold sees in the coming universe of new words the potential for a utopia. To restore a limpid tongue to the world, one created organically rather that imposed from above (sparing it the sorry fate of Esperanto), would be to undo the fall of the Tower of Babel, to deliver mutual understanding to a planet mired in miscommunication. To Jerrold, the schwa, the most primeval of sounds, contains within it the promise of a return to a forgotten, prelapsarian past. 

"If you don't have a word for a thing, it doesn't exist," says Jerrold. "No wonder the world never had fun together before — we never had a word for it. But now we do."

I asked Robert Frank, a professor of linguistics at Yale, his opinion of Jerrold's theories. Frank was polite but skeptical. 

"I don't think that English is really lacking in its expressive capacity," Frank said. He pointed out that there existed little scholarly evidence to suggest a correlation between the number of letters or sounds a language incorporates and its ability to express sophisticated thought. Italian, for example, uses only 21 letters — five fewer than English, yet enough to accommodate the likes of Dante.

Regarding a campaign to alter an alphabet, Frank said such an act had precedent. He compared Uncle Jerrold's efforts to those of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who, in 1928, overhauled the entire Turkish alphabet as one of a series of modernizing reforms. Asked about whether anyone had, to his knowledge, ever tried to directly insert a new letter into the English alphabet, Frank said he believed Jerrold was without peer.

"No, I don't know of anyone who's tried to add a letter wholesale," he said.

In addition
to serving as Jerrold's base of operations, the dumb-ball machine houses a small lending library consisting of six hardback books: The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Roger Brown's Words and Things, Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, a reference book on English etymology, Dr. Seuss' And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Although the books are prominently displayed on the machine's topmost shelf, Jerrold seldom informs his pupils that they're available for borrowing. He is wary of imposing on people's time and has yet to figure out how to work a mention of the books into his lectures. Consequently, no one has yet asked to borrow one. Jerrold suspects that, were he asked to lend one out, he would demand a prohibitively expensive deposit, perhaps as much as $50. 

Except for the Dr. Seuss, all of Jerrold's books are about words. (Even A Brief History of Time, viewed in a certain light, is about words; it contains one of Jerrold's favorite quotes: "It does not matter your model of the universe, so long as it works.") Jerrold keeps the Dr. Seuss around in the event that, were he to receive a visit from a young child, he would not want for age-appropriate reading material. Jerrold opens Mulberry Street to the third page and points to a picture of a horse pulling a cart. 

"And what does this resemble?" Jerrold nods at the dumb-ball machine. He borrowed the book from his sister shortly before purchasing the contraption and only recently noticed the likeness. He has coined a word (one of his few schwa-less inventions) to describe the coincidence.

"Hizfixizin," Jerrold says. "H-I-Z-F-I-X-I-Z-I-N. It means 'serendipity.' It means 'fate.' It means 'the course of the stars.' Hizfixizin."
Jerrold is a writer and will also occasionally lend out his own short stories: "Codebreaker," "After an Afternoon an Author Takes a Carmen to See Carmen" and "Mayra and Ones Won Like Her." A half-dozen copies of each story, neatly printed on copy paper and bound with black thread, are deposited in their own paper folder, stored on one of the dumb-ball machine's shelves. Technically, the short stories, like the collection of hardbacks, are lent out, not sold, but Jerrold charges borrowers a deposit of only $2 on the expectation that they will not be returned. He also stocks an illustrated book of maxims called Virgil Sashabaw's Philosophies For Dogs to Live By. The maxims, all but two written by Jerrold, range from the homiletic ("Remember where you bury your best bones.") to the Zen-like ("Does your sign say 'Beware of Dog?' The dog is you."). Each is accompanied by a cartoon of a toothy blue mutt. Jerrold says Virgil Shashabaw is a character in his second novel. 

On the back of the shelf, Jerrold has taped a postcard bearing the half-length portrait in oil of a young woman. Copies of the postcard, which include a stamp, are available for $1. The painting's subject, a skinny, sloe-eyed brunette, is depicted glaring at the viewer over her left shoulder, her facial expression a perfect amalgam of lust and icy contempt. Jerrold purchased the painting — entitled "CAMILLE!" — for $500 at an art fair in Milwaukee. It hangs in his living room.

"I liked the look of her," Jerrold says. "Maybe she reminded me of my ex-wife." 

Jerrold was married for a time, when he lived in Nyack, N.Y. He spent several years bouncing between driving jobs in Nyack and New York City, working as a taxi hack and then as a driver for a limousine company. Later, he started his own suburban car service, allowing him to further hone his skills as a salesman.

A decade ago, Jerrold separated from his spouse, sold his company, and set about organizing his life in such a way as to allow him maximum opportunity to write fiction. Jerrold knew he wanted to be a writer ever since junior high school, when he read Ernest Hemingway's preface to his own anthology of short stories. Jerrold can still recite the last paragraph from memory: 

"In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well oiled in the closet, but unused."

Partaking in an American literary tradition set forth by Conrad and Melville, Jerrold decided to become a sailor. 

"It made sense," says Jerrold. "Even if you're working 12-hour days, you have 12 hours to yourself. Even if you're on the bridge steering the ship, you have a lot of time to think looking at the water." 

Although joining the Seafarers International Union, to which nearly all U.S. merchant mariners belong, is relatively easy, receiving a first job can require monkish patience. Jerrold was told to show up at the Brooklyn union hall, a dull white building located a few blocks south of the Gowanus Expressway, and wait for a position to become available. So, for three months — six days a week, eight hours a day — Jerrold sat under the fluorescent lights of the union hall's waiting room. Finally, Jerrold was placed on the U.S.N.S. Indomitable, where he spent the next five months chauffeuring DEA agents as they spied on drug boats making the run to Florida. 

Jerrold continues to earn his living as a sailor. He will spend months at sea, where his expenses are few, and then return home flush with cash. This will cover his expenses for a time, allowing him to devote himself fully to his writing and to propagation of the schwa. 

Jerrold, whose legal name is Jerrold M. Foke, moved to Detroit six years ago. Although his Merchant Mariner's document permits him to steer ships of unlimited tonnage, Jerrold's driver's license has expired and he does not own a car. His time running a driving service left him disenchanted with automobiles, and he now gets around mostly by bike. In fact, the Motor City's small, easily traversable downtown was one of the features that drew him to the city. Also, eight of his siblings' children — seven nephews and one niece — lived in Michigan. He missed watching them grow up, and, having no children of his own, figured he had the makings of an ideal uncle. Hence, "Uncle Jerrold."

Jerrold has been setting up the dumb-ball machine twice a week for several months now, and each time sees many of the same faces. He feels he is making progress. People will walk by a dozen times and then stop on the thirteenth pass. When Jerrold gets antsy, as he is now, he will circumambulate the carpet in long, easy strides, carrying his weight on the balls of his feet and his head high, a helmsman surveying his domain.

A plump woman with maroon fingernails and elephantine sunglasses saunters up to Jerrold and the cart.

Jerrold regales her with his spiel on the schwa and then moves on to a discussion of the intricacies of the dumb-ball machine, a lesson that ties in etymology, pinball and free will. She listens patiently for a while, saying little. Finally, she clutches Jerrold's wrist and stares into his eyes.

"Truth be told, I got to get to an appointment," she whispers huskily, moving her face close to his. "Honestly, I just come over to tell you how good looking you are, admire how ... handsome you is. I didn't really come over here for none of ... this." She flutters a handful of long, curved nails at the cart. 

Jerrold blushes fiercely. "Well, um, thank you." He glances down at his wrist; her grip tightens incrementally. "And feel, uh, free to use the schwa ... to make your own words."

The woman releases him, leaving a pale pink handprint on Jerrold's left arm, and strolls off, swiveling her head to shoot Jerrold a last, smoldering look.

Jerrold is silent for a while, and then gazes up into the clear blue sky.

"Reach 'em any way you can," he murmurs.

Jerrold says that part of what makes his campaign difficult is that many of the people who pass him on their lunch break are not from Detroit proper, but from the surrounding suburbs. Their connection to the city is limited and most have no special curiosity about local culture.

"What I've noticed is most of the people who stop are 'non-system' people," Jerrold says. "They're not afraid of something new and different. Some of the people who I'd classify as 'system' people I'd say are a little more hesitant, think I might ask them for something. But I get some of them too. I see their faces every day, and eventually, they stop. When I've saturated the market, I'll move on. But that'll be a while."

Since moving to the city, Jerrold has lived in a corner suite on an upper floor of the Leland Hotel. His kitchen overlooks the white funnelform tents of the Rosa Parks Transit Center. The Leland, which was once quite swank but has lapsed into a state of spectacular decrepitude, is occupied in the main by non-system people. When Jerrold moved in, his apartment was all but uninhabitable: the ceiling sagged, the bathtub was a swamp, and every time his upstairs neighbors showered, so did he. In exchange for performing his own repairs, the Leland agreed to freeze Jerrold's rent. His apartment is now fully restored — Jerrold did all of the work himself — and IKEA chic. The first thing one sees upon entering Jerrold's apartment is a large punching bag that hangs from the ceiling of his foyer. At the top of the bag, daubed in white paint, are the words, "WE BOTH KNOW WE CAN'T WIN WHAT WE WANT."

When he is not at sea, Jerrold spends most of his day in the apartment, writing. Jerrold has recently finished his first novel and has started on his second. His first novel took him nine years to write. It is entitled No More These Sad Sounds, after the opening line of Schiller's "Ode to Joy." Jerrold has recently begun sending out a letter to literary agents:

Dear Agent, I need an agent,

Welcome in to a counter-culture underdog's story. Meet Audie Shaw, he's a twenty-two year old parolee who bucks his default life as an ex-convict in a big way. 

After one year out of jail and many rogue adventures as a New York taxi driver, Audie is questioned anew by federal agents. Try as the ex-convict does, in 100,000 words, to lie about clandestine errands run for a former cellmate, to deny knowing a dead man found in the backseat of his cab, and to hide a large stash of money the agents seek, our imperfect hero's quest to find his rightful place ends, when he is sent back to prison — a winner. [Sic]

Jerrold finds an hizfixizin quality to the selection of his protagonist's name, which he chose years ago, after one of his nephews, whose middle name is "Shaw." 

"OK, take 'Shaw' and reverse the 'w' and the 'a.' See — schwa!"

It was only after Jerrold had finished his novel that he discovered the book's true purpose. The story builds until, in the last chapter, a mobster tells Shaw to look him up sometime. 

"We'll have fundəgethə," the mafioso promises, "tinkəboudit." And, with that, the reader is introduced to the schwa. Jerrold believes that publication of his novel by a reputable publishing house would constitute a de facto admission of the schwa into the English alphabet. 

"I'm guessing the publisher would have to incorporate the schwa into whatever font they use," he says. "That'd be part of the negotiations."

The rest of Jerrold's stories are similar Trojan horses, the schwa deployed casually and without explanation. "He walkəwayd," declares a character in "Codebreaker", "and you're right, Peter — it was just justəzgood."

Jerrold has been brainstorming other strategies for spreading the schwa. He's considered launching a guerrilla-style graffiti campaign (of a strictly legal variety) in which "HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THE Ə?" would be written with dry-erase markers on glass windowpanes. He fears, however, that the schwa symbol would be mistaken for a lowercase "a." With this in mind, Jerrold has been working with an artist friend to tweak the schwa's design, to make it appear more "schwa-y." The latest instantiation suggests a cross between a ladle with a curved handle and a backward "6."

"I don't want people to see the schwa and be confused, like, 'Oh, that's not the sound that letter makes.' It was it to be a natural fit, where you see the letter and you just go 'Uhhhhhh?'" 

The sky is cloudy, and the wind is up. Foot traffic is sparse, and Jerrold has spent much of the day hunched over the dumb-ball machine reading Henry Miller, glancing up periodically to see if anyone's heading his way. Squalls barreling down Michigan Avenue have been knocking off his sign and turning up the corners of the carpet. Jerrold finally rolls it up and puts it away.

"I'm a volunteer out here," he says, "but I believe it's important. It could, possibly, make a difference. Whether I will spend my life in a futile attempt, I have no way of knowing. But it's all for the good. I know that."

Jerrold rests an arm against the top shelf of the dumb-ball machine.

"Hey, you know where Hemingway got the name for In Our Time? From the phrase, 'Peace in our time.' Ha! That's not likely, but we can sure have fundəgethə."

Jerrold Foke explaining why he wants to introduce the schwa to the alphabet

Jerrold Foke demonstrates the dumbball machine

Matthew Wolfe is a writer living in Detroit. He is working on a book about felons. Send comments to [email protected]