Is the letter Y a vowel or a consonant?

by | 29/07/18

Our work in public relations naturally involves a lot of words, whether spoken or written and sometimes it throws up some interesting debates in the office.

The title of this blog highlights the latest such conversation across the desks, following our posting of the word ‘strengths’ as the longest word in the English language to contain only a single vowel, as part of our #neverlostforwords campaign.

Immediately, the word rhythms sprang to mind, which is often cited as the longest word in English without a vowel. But many would argue that English words must contain a vowel, it’s sort of one of the rules. So how then do you explain cry, cyst, crypt, to name but a few examples?

The answer is in the peculiar treatment afforded the letter Y, which is regarded as both a vowel and a consonant – a sort of Schrödinger’s letter.

Think of the sound

When we consider the way we produce sounds, by shaping our mouths and vocal tract, then exhaling air, the sound of the vowels is generally produced by a comparatively open, unobstructed passage of air.

The vocal cords will vibrate, but there is little if any audible friction – try it and hold your fingers around your throat and under your chin as you do. As you sound the vowels, little will change in your mouth or throat, or indeed with your lips.

Conversely, the sounds we make for the consonants, require the path of the breath to be at least partly obstructed – again, try it and hold your throat again. You will feel the movement in your mouth and throat, along with your tongue and lips shaping the sounds.

Today is brought to you by the letter Y

Our strange letter Y, is used to represent different sounds in different words, which ensures it fits both descriptions as outlined above – clever and ever so slightly confusing.

This ability to fit both descriptions means it can also fit either definition.

In the word ‘rhythm’ it is clearly undertaking the sound and role of a vowel. Now consider a word like ‘crayon’, where the breath path must be obstructed briefly to create the sound between the ‘y’ and the ‘o’. In this example the ‘y’ is acting as a consonant.

It is this ability to switch roles that earns the letter ‘Y’ the title of ‘semivowel’.

domestic yak

A Yak, of course

In conclusion, any argument as to whether the letter ‘Y’ is a vowel or a consonant is somewhat redundant and the decision is arbitrary. We typically use the letter more as a vowel, but when used this way, it can usually be replaced with the letter ‘I’ – which is always a vowel (phew!).

However, just to add to the confusion, when ‘Y’ represents the consonant sound, it is not consistently represented by any other letter, which is why ‘Y’ is generally regarded as a consonant.

I hope this look at the peculiarities of the letter ‘Y’ has helped and in future blogs we’ll address a few more of the strange ways of the English language – it’s not like we’re going to short of topics!