Viewpoint: The Story of Ō

In these troubling times it is hard to find a cause one can truly believe in. I count myself lucky to have found such a cause. It is, I hope you will agree, one with much to recommend it and with your help it may even come to pass. The cause of which I speak is the letter 'O'. Or, to be more precise, the letter 'Ō'.

As you may know, though based on the Latin alphabet, the Latvian alphabet has 33 characters, including several unique letters of its own, among them vowels featuring the simple horizontal line known as a diacritic.

With a diacritical mark, the vowel is lengthened so that 'a' becomes 'ā' ('aa'), e becomes ē, i becomes ī, u becomes ū and o becomes... well, there's the problem. O doesn't get a diacritic. This is a clear case of vowelistic discrimination.

It was not always so. During the year's of Latvia's cultural awakening and early years of independence, when the grammatical rules were still being worked out and the German and Polish influences on orthography were particularly marked, all sorts of rogue letters and suspect spelling conventions were roaming the Latvian literary landscape. Among them was 'Ō'.

But gradually the rules were tightened and 'Ō' vanished, as if it had fled into exile at the approach of the invaders who brought the curtain down on the first period of independence - permanently as they thought.

Well, they were wrong. It took a while, but Latvia re-emerged in 1991 and set about rebuilding its language and culture all over again. Families exiled for a couple of generations returned to claim their rightful inheritances and now I see no reason why alphabetical restitution should not be made, too.

If that seems like a questionable parallel, I might have thought so too had I not recently been told by a friend with the surname 'Pots', of mixed Latvian and Estonian heritage, that the family name was originally 'Poots', but as double adjacent vowels are no longer permitted in Latvian, it had been truncated to the less sonorous 'Pots'. He would welcome the chance to call himself 'Pōts', he said, becoming in the process the living embodiment of pan-Baltic cooperation and liberty.

This seems a harsh fate considering the huge help Estonia gave to Latvia in winning its independence back in 1918. What better way to acknowledge this debt than returning 'ō' to its rightful place, if only for a year? Particularly as it would be a piece of inspired wit those logical Estonians would never come up with themselves.

I admit the idea of the "celebratory vowel" first came to me as a joke. I suggested such a move for Latvia's centenary in my New Year astrological predictions here on LSM (most of which have come to pass, trust me). Clearly someone else was thinking along similar lines, as the reintroduction of the defunct Ō has actually been included as a proposal on the official website of the centenary celebrations.

But the more thought I have given to this, the more it seems like an actual good idea.

I take issue with the official website's suggestion that Ō should be taken to mean an expression of ecstatic delight. I think it should mean whatever people want it to mean in 2018. Ō should be turned loose for twelve months among the other letters like some ancient Latvian lynx (lūsis) released to breed in the forest.

I'm confident it could fend for itself and find use in numerous ways, enriching poetry and song (we all sing it by default anyway, when we forget the words), meditation in the traditional Latvian sauna (pirts) and perhaps most of all, graphic design.

Orthographically and aesthetically, Ō is an exceptionally beautiful letter. What could be a more classic combination than a circle and a line? Yet it's also quite friendly-looking. To me it suggests someone rubbing their stomach and patting their head at the same time - the most harmless form of amusement ever devised by mankind.

I don't think any political party with Nazi leanings could spin it round an axis and pretend the resemblance to a swastika was coincidental like they do with some symbols. If they did that with Ō it would just look like a diagram of place settings at a wedding.

This friendly, unpretentious quality of 'Operation Ō' is one of its most attractive aspects. The re-introduction of a lost letter is not a grandiose piece of pomposity, it is a very humble and practical little thing.

One of the other leading ideas for celebrating Latvia's centenary is to fly an enormous flag from an enormous flagpole in the center of the fairly enormous city of Riga. That's all very well but it strikes me as rather obvious, rather pointless (is pride proportionate to flag size?) and precisely the sort of thing one might expect from some Central Asian or Middle Eastern despotic regime trying to prove how massively important it is, to the rest of the world's general disinterest, because it can think of nothing better to do.

Recent big flag enthusiasts include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.

Ō is the very opposite of this tendency and one that I think is much more in keeping with the national character. Latvia has always been great at small, perfectly formed things of deceptive simplicity, from the compact yet complex dainas of its poetic tradition to its knitted mittens.

Latvia just doesn't do bombast and to embark on bombastic celebration is to invite hubristic retribution. Most likely 2018 will prove to be the least windy year since records began.

Operation Ō is immune to such problems. It costs nothing to introduce a letter to the alphabet. Reproduction of Ō on 2018 merchandise will be permitted without trademark or copyright restrictions. No additional logo will be required at massive expense from an ad agency. It is a linguistic analogue of the open source code that everyone agrees is such a good thing in the IT sphere.

Ō is its own logo, and a perfect one at that. Without the diactrical mark it represents precisely nothing. Ergo with the diacritic mark it must mean something because it no longer means nothing.

It might even make money. Unless legislation to allow official use of Ō is drawn up and passed by Saeima in advance of 2018, the use of Ō will be technically illegal. The State Language Center (VVC), a sort of SWAT team of spelling not known for its easygoing sense of humour, will most probably fine those businesses and individuals who use Ō. 

Far from being something to be ashamed of, these fines would in effect be a centenary surcharge for people keen to be as close to the spirit of Latvia's independence as possible. The sight of the uber-patriotic VVC fining people for using an entirely Latvian letter would also provide amusement to many of its previous victims and the general public at large. It is even conceivable people might compete to rack up the greatest number of spelling tickets.

These fines could be called 'Patriot Tax', a suitable replacement for the 'Solidarity Tax' which is being axed because no-one wanted to show solidarity. If Ō usage proves as popular as I suspect, these fines could end up paying for the entire centenary celebration.

And at the end of 2018? Ō could be retired once again, in the unlikely event that the public had not taken it to their hearts. Preparations could then begin for the bicentennial celebrations, for which I would recommend the reintroduction of Ŗ/ŗ.

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