Did you know these novels were written entirely without using vowel 'e'?

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Thu 28 Jul 2022, 7:39 PM

When we discussed the rule of ablautreduplication, we talked about inviolable vowel order in compound words — I-A-O, as in mish-mash or King Kong. Some of you may have noticed that the letter “e” was missing from that rule, whereas it is often considered the most indispensable vowel in languages derived from Latin, like English and French. The brilliant if somewhat eccentric French writer Georges Perec took up the issue of the indispensability of the letter “e” by writing an entire novel without using that letter. His lipogrammatic novel titled La Disparition in French, was the literary sensation of 1969. Translating it wasn’t easy, since even the title means “The Disappearance”, which contains two “e”s, but Gilbert Adair pulled it off, and you can read Perec’s book in English, also without the letter “e” in it, under the title “A Void”. But it then turned out not to be an unprecedented feat, since the American author Ernest Vincent Wright had written a 1939 novel called Gadsby also without using the letter “e” — and what’s more, his book was 50,000 words long. (His feat fell short of Perec’s, however, because he allowed three “e”s to creep in, accidentally using the word “the” twice and “officers” once.)

Neither novel works terribly well as a story, because there is something contrived about the attempt to construct a narrative without the letter “e”. But the feat is not easy to accomplish, precisely because the letter “e” is so ubiquitous (in the 239 words in this column so far, there are several dozen “e”s already!) The issue came up in the Internet era when someone issued a challenge on Quora, “Can you make a sentence without using a single ‘E’?” The best answer came from Marcus Geduld, described as a “published author, lifelong reader” who wrote:

“I doubt I can. It’s a major part of many, many words. Omitting it is as hard as making muffins without flour. It’s as hard as spitting without saliva, napping without a pillow, driving a train without tracks, sailing to Russia without a boat, washing your hands without soap, or shitting without a butt. And, anyway, what would I gain? An award? A cash bonus? Bragging rights? Why should I strain my brain? It’s not worth doing. Now, a grammatical paragraph without commas: that would wow most folks on Quora, don’t you think? Could you do it? If so, I tip my hat to you — or I would if I had a hat. Or, how about a paragraph without punctuation? Or a paragraph without nouns? If you can do that, you’ll win my admiration. Go on. Try! I’m waiting…”

But Geduld’s paragraph, and Wright’s and Perec’s novels, serve to provoke some reflection on how truly vital vowels are to construct words, the building blocks of language. In his Introduction (which, not being part of the novel itself, does contain the letter ‘e’), Wright says his primary problem in writing it was in expressing the past tense, which so often in English ends with the suffix “-ed”. Wright had to use verbs that do not take the -ed suffix and construct convoluted verb forms with the word “do” (like “did walk” instead of “walked”). Because he did not use the letter “e”, he could not use a lot of common words like “fed”, “bed” or “red”, pronouns like “he”, “she” and “they”, or many basic words describing quantity (every number between six and thirty uses the letter “e”!).

It’s not just the vowel “e” that’s the challenge — doing this exercise without any one of the other vowels would be just as difficult. To those familiar with English, words without vowels, or using very few of them, seem odd: there was a wonderful joke once about an emergency humanitarian airlift of vowels to Poland, whose language seems startlingly starved of them! And yet there are some English words that manage not to use vowels at all: aside from three-letter words like shy, thy and wry, a handful — crypt, cyst, hymn, myrrh, myth, pygmy, shyly and sylph — are the only ones that I can think of. Let’s hope the Wordle puzzle doesn’t use too many of these: we rely so much on vowels we’d never guess words without them!


More news from