Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage

Vowel mouthed

Q: My boyfriend and I were sitting on my balcony, perhaps drinking too much, when the talk turned to vowels. At some point, he said, “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w.” ALL I said was this: “I learned only y. I never heard w called a vowel.” Before long, we were hurling insults at each other’s schools (mine in Iowa and his in New Jersey). Now I’m beginning to wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me. So here’s my question: Pat is from Iowa. Did she learn her vowels with just y or with y and w?

A: Some people learned that old school jingle with just “y,” some with both “y” and “w,” and some without either one.

When Pat was going to elementary school in Iowa in the ’50s, she learned that the vowels were “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes w and y.” When Stewart was learning his vowels in New York in the ’40s, he learned just “a, e, i, o, u.”

Five years ago, we ran a brief entry on “w” and “y” as vowels. To make a long story short, they’re generally consonants at the beginning of a syllable and vowels at the end. They’re also vowels when they’re part of a diphthong, as in “boy” or “cow.”

Writers on language have singled out “w” and “y” as special cases since at least as far back as the late 1700s.

This is from A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, by the influential 18th-century lexicographer John Walker: “The vowels are, a, e, i, o, u; and y and w when ending a syllable. The consonants are, b, c, d, f, [etc.] …; and y and w when beginning a syllable.”

Walker also says two vowels forming one syllable are a diphthong, three are a triphthong. His examples include the “aw” in “law”; the “ay” in “say”; the “ew” in “jewel”; the “ey” in “they”; the “ow” in “now”; the “oy” in “boy”; the “uy” in “buy”; the word “aye”; and the “iew” in “view.”

After discussing “w” and “y,” he concludes: “Thus we find, that the common opinion, with respect to the double capacity of these letters, is perfectly just.”

We quoted from a 1797 edition of Walker’s book, first published in 1791 and widely reprinted throughout the 19th century.

We also found several mid-19th-century books that describe “y” and “w” variously as “vowel consonants” or as letters that unite or straddle the two categories.

But whatever you were told in school, the subject of what we call consonants and what we call vowels is very slippery and often misleading.

Sometimes, as with “say” and “now,” the “y” and “w” are vowels. But in some other words they’re obviously consonants, even though their sounds could be respelled with a pair of vowels.

For example, the name “Danielle” is sometimes spelled “Danyel.” In the traditional spelling, “ie” is a vowel cluster. Yet in the alternate spelling, “y” is a consonant, since it’s a hard or voiced “y” as in “yellow.” Same sound, different symbols, different labels (vowel vs. consonant).

And to use a “w” example, the French oui and the English “we” sound alike, yet “ou” is a consonant cluster while the “w” in “we” is clearly a consonant, as in “well.” Again, same sound, different symbols, different labels.

As you can see, the “vowel” vs. “consonant” labels sometimes break down when applied to spellings.

You might even argue that “y” and “w” are always diphthongs to some degree or other, since even when they’re consonants at the beginning of a syllable—as in “yet” and “wet”—they’re still combinations of vowel sounds (“ee-eh” and “oo-eh”).

At many points, the old categories let us down and stop being useful. This is more apparent now than when we were kids, because scholars of linguistics and phonology have developed more sophisticated ways of looking at our sound/spelling systems.

A “vowel” is a kind of sound, or the letter that represents it. Similarly, a “consonant” is a kind of sound, or the letter that represents it. If a particular letter can represent either kind of sound, then it can be both a vowel and a consonant.

Here’s what the linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum write in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

“The categories vowel and consonant are defined in terms of speech. Vowels have unimpeded airflow through the throat and mouth, while consonants employ a significant constriction of the airflow somewhere in the oral tract (between the vocal cords and the lips).”

Thus, they write, “we do not follow the traditional practice of simply dividing the alphabet into five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and twenty-one consonants.” This traditional classification, they say, “does not provide a satisfactory basis for describing the spelling alternations in English morphology.”

The authors don’t even use the terms “vowel” and “consonant” alone in referring to writing. For example, they describe y as a “vowel letter in fully,” as a “consonant letter in yes,” and as “just part of a composite vowel symbol in boy.”

They describe u as a “vowel letter in fun,” as a “consonant letter in quick,” and as “part of a composite symbol in mouth.”

And “y,” “w,” and “u” aren’t the only in-between letters. “H” is a consonant in “heavy” but a vowel in “dahlia.”

In his book American English Spelling (1988), Donald Wayne Cummings summarizes the situation this way:

“Thus we get the following categories: (1) letters that are always vowels (a, e, i, and o); (2) letters that are sometimes consonants but usually vowels (u and y); letters that are sometimes vowels but usually consonants (h and w); and (4) letters that are always consonants (b, c, d, f, g, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x, and z).”

So in the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly worth it for you and your boyfriend to throw insults at each other over vowel language. Still, we’ve had some pretty silly language arguments too, ones that you’d probably find pointless.

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