…And Sometimes “Y”
by James Parker
Merriam-Webster’s second definition of a vowel is “a letter or other symbol representing a vowel — usually used in English of ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’, ‘u’, and sometimes ‘y’”. Once more, for emphasis: “and sometimes ‘y’”. But why is “y” only sometimes a vowel? What constitutes a vowel from a consonant? And which is “y” really?
The word “vowel” stems from the Anglo-French word vowele, which has the Latin base of vocalis. Merriam-Webster says that a vowel is “one of a class of speech sounds in the articulation of which the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and is not constricted enough to cause audible friction”.
The consonant, which word’s origins are that of Latin’s consonare and means “to sound together”, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one of a class of speech sounds (as \p\, \g\, \n\, \l\, \s\, \r\) characterized by constriction or closure at one or more points in the breath channel; also : a letter representing a consonant — usually used in English of any letter except ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’, and ‘u’”. “y” is omitted. In the definition of a consonant, “y” is not even considered.
Yeah, that’s great and everything. But what is “y”? Surprise! – it’s both!
As a vowel “y” is a closed, front, rounded vowel (see chart below). So what does that mean? Well, a closed versus open vowel denotes how far apart your lips are from one another when making the vowel. An example is \a\ as in “apple” being open, versus the \i\ in “egret” which is closed. Front, central, and back vowels denote from where the sound comes. The \i\ in “egret” is front, while the \u\ in “boot” is back. You can feel the sound forming, if you will, in those parts of your mouth. And lastly, a vowel’s being rounded depends on the shape of your mouth, such as the rounded \o\ in “boat” and the un-rounded \ɤ\ in “book”. As far as words with “y” as a vowel, we have “boy”, “fairy”, “satyr”, and “myth”.
As a consonant, meanwhile, the letter “y” is palatal approximant. Palatal consonants are made by pressing the body of the tongue against the hard palate, which is the middle of the rood of the mouth. Its being an approximant simply denotes the exact location of the tongue to the mouth, which is the sides of the tongue pressing against the teeth. We can sit here and argue about how the letter “y” is two different kinds of approximant consonants, being \j\ and \λ\ – just as most vowels have two different sounds, long and short –, but that’s just getting messy. Words like “yes”, “yoke”, and “player” demonstrate “y” as a consonant.
You’ll note that “y” tends to be a consonant only at the beginning of syllables and is followed by its own vowel. As a vowel itself, however, the “y” will be found in the middle or at the end of a syllable.
So let’s blow your mind a little – how about when the “y” can be argued either way. It’s cheating (a little), but it can be argued that “y” is sometimes a silent consonant. In words like “day” and “obey”, which side would you support?
So there you have it, kiddies. The infamous “y” is both a vowel and a consonant, and sometimes both simultaneously.
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