145: a, e,i, o, u and sometimes y

Why is 'y' sometimes a vowel.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 145th episode.

When we launched our new EnglishAssembly.com Facebook page, the first question we asked was if you were taught that the letter y is a vowel. When I was a child, we were taught that the vowels were a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. Sometimes y? What does that mean?

We know that, in English, letters represent sounds. The letters a, e, i, o, and u are used alone or in combination with each other to represent vowel sounds. So, for the sake of simplicity, we call those letters vowels. Letters and sounds are not the same thing, though. So, if we're talking about y, then we really need to know if we're talking about the letter y or the y sound. This is because the letter y sometimes represents a vowel sound and sometimes represents a consonant sound. The confusion occurs because the y sound is generally considered to be a consonant sound. This is for two reasons.

First, consonant sounds are created with a more restricted vocal tract than vowel sounds. During the y sound, the the tongue is held slightly closer to the tooth ridge during the y sound than for the vowel sound most similar to it: the long e sound. This can be heard, though it is very slight, in the minimal pair yeast/east. At the beginning of the word yeast, y-e-a-s-t, my tongue is close enough to my tooth ridge for the airflow to be considered restricted. My vocal tract is not as constricted in the beginning of the word east e-a-s-t. Listen to both words again: yeast/east. The trouble with the constricted vocal tract explanation is that there is no exact amount of constriction that classifies a sound as a consonant or a vowel.

Therefore, we rely more on the second characteristic of determining whether a sound is a vowel or consonant: all vowels must create a syllable. The words yeast and east are both only one syllable in length. They both contain only one vowel sound, the long e. The means that the y sound cannot be a vowel. If it were a vowel, the word yeast, beginning with a y sound, would be two syllables in length.

Despite the fact that the y sound is a consonant sound, there are many, many more words that use the letter y to represent a vowel sound than use the letter y to represent a consonant sound. To add more confusion, let's remember that the letter y commonly used in creating at least five different vowel sounds: the long a, long e, long i, short i, and oi sound.

Of those five sounds, probably, the most common vowel sound created with the y spelling is the long e sound at the end of a word (as in the words happy and pony). It represents the long i sound, both at the end of a word (as in the words shy and dry), or in the middle of a word (as in the words cycle and dynamic). The letter y mid-word can also represent the short i sound, as in the words myth and symbol.

Digraphs are sounds represented by two letters, and the letter y can be involved here, too. Remember that the ay spelling is commonly used for the long a sound (as in the words day and play), and the oy spelling of the oi sound (as in the words boy and joy).

How can you keep track of all of this? Well, lucky for you, all of this information is on our website, Pronuncian.com. But there is a new resource available to you right now! We have officially launched our second edition of Pronunciation Pages and it includes all of the sound spelling and pronunciation lessons as well a large number of exercises and quizzes, plus all of our new and improved sounds lists, and all of the audio for each lesson, exercise, and quiz. All of the concepts I've talked about in this episode are included in the book, and so are the y spelling exercises.

You can buy the new book in its physical form and we'll happily ship it to you, or you can download it in PDF with all of the audio in MP3 form. I really cannot express how excited I am to have this available to you. I'll link to our products page from the transcripts for this show, which you can find by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast and clicking Episode 145. In case you're wondering, I'll also link to the free lessons that correspond to this lesson from this show's transcripts page as well.

Now let's practice. First, here are some words with a y spelling representing the y sound:




And here are the words I used as examples of the y spelling being used to represent the various vowel sounds:




Oh, one last thing, in case you're wondering: what about the letter w? Everything that is true about the letter y representing a consonant or a vowel sound is also true for the letter w. I can only think that it's because w doesn't represent vowel sounds as often as the letter y that it isn't included in the children's chant of a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. The chant could be a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and sometimes w and it would still be true, and it would still be overly simplified. The most important idea to remember is that letters and sounds are different things. Letters represent sounds, but only sounds can actually be vowels or consonants.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.