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Today's XKCD got me thinking about when the letter Y is considered to be a vowel. I understand (perhaps incorrectly) that in words like bicycle and why it is a vowel. What about the word voyeur (as mentioned in the XKCD alt-text)?

If I've got this backwards, and Y is almost always a vowel, how can I tell when it is a consonant? Thinking back, I don't think my education ever covered the difference between them, we just memorized which letters were which.

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I'm leaning towards you having it backwards. I can't at the moment come up with a case where it's a consonant. Seems like it's almost always a vowel. –  Brian Knoblauch Jan 28 '11 at 15:40
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@Brian: In school we were taught "A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y" with the implication that usually Y was a consonant. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 28 '11 at 15:56
    
Not really on topic, but "w" can also represent a vowel, but I'm only aware of two words where it does so: "cwm", a small valley, and "corgwm", the plural of "corgi" (the stubby little dog). Both words are from Welsh and I've never heard either of them used anywhere but discussions of when "w" is a vowel. –  Malvolio Jan 28 '11 at 21:58
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I love the word "syzygy" -- it's great for playing hangman. –  thursdaysgeek Jul 13 '11 at 23:03
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Only sounds are vowels, not letters. –  tchrist Jan 5 '13 at 15:40
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6 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The answer is that it depends on what purpose you have in assigning it, or what set of rules you are following.

From the point of view of phonetics, the first thing to realise is that letters are not vowels or consonants: they represent sounds which may be vowels or consonants (and in the case of "y" possibly both).

The next point is that bifurcation into vowels and consonants is too simple: phoneticians recognise other possibilities such as "semivowel" — which "y" often is.

It is clear that in "Yvonne" and "mystery" all the "y"s represent vowel sounds.

I would say that in "yacht" and "Yeltsin" they represent semivowels (which you can call consonants if you like.)

I would disagree strongly with decoz.com (quoted in Mehper's answer) about "Kay" and "Sydney" — I think it is preposterous to say that "y" is representing a consonant in those. In the case of "Sydney", it is part of a way of writing a simple vowel sound; in "Kay" it is part of a way of writing a long vowel sound or a diphthong, depending on dialect. (A diphthong consists of two vowels or a vowel and a semivowel depending on how you want to analyse it).

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I think "semi-vowel" is the concept that was missing from my education. That makes it much clearer. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 28 '11 at 16:31
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+1, for the crucial point that phonemes are what can be meaningfully classified as consonants or vowels (or semi-vowels, or points on a spectrum…), while letters just represent phonemes, often rather haphazardly. Generalities like “ m typically represents a consonant” can make sense, but in the case of individual words it’s often almost meaningless to try to pin down the letter/phoneme correspondence. What phoneme does h represent in length? In night? Honour? What letter represents the second vowel in little? In it’ll? And back on-topic, what about y in Guyana? –  PLL Jan 28 '11 at 16:58
    
@PLL Regarding Guyana, it depends on how you analyse it. It could be /ɡaɪˈænə/ or /ɡʌˈjænə/ or something in between, like /ɡaɪˈjænə/. I’m not entirely convinced those are actually different. –  tchrist Dec 10 '12 at 14:52
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The letter y represents the consonant /j/ (as in yes), known variously as a palatal glide, a palatal approximant and a palatal semi-vowel. It also represents the vowels /ɪ/ (as in hymn) and /ɪ:/ (as in trendy) and, alone or in combination, it represents the diphthongs /aɪ/ (as in try), /ɔɪ/ (as in boy) and /eɪ/ (as in day).

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I'm sorry (maybe I misunderstand the symbol), but doesn't the letter y in trendy represent the vowel /i:/, not /ɪ:/ ? –  Christian Mann Oct 9 '13 at 4:26
    
It does. Carelessness on the keyboard. However, I’ve just checked the OED again, and find, a little to my surprise, that it gives the pronunciation of ‘trendy’ as /ˈtrɛndɪ/, and not as /ˈtrɛndi:/. –  Barrie England Oct 9 '13 at 6:37
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Y can make 4 sounds:

a hard y, as in yield (in this case, it is a consonant, it's most common use)
a short i sound, as in bicycle
a long i sound, as in my
a long e sound, as in baby

In the last three cases it is used just as the letter i would be, and so it is a vowel.

It can also be used as part of a digraph, where two vowels written together are considered to have one sound. Examples would be ay in May and ey in Sydney. This is similar to the way other digraphs are used, such as ea in eager or ie in friend.

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The following excerpt from decoz.com sounds useful:

When determining if the Y is a vowel or a consonant, the basic rule is this:

When the letter serves as a vowel, and in fact sounds like one, it is a vowel. The same is true when the Y serves as the only vowel in the syllable. Examples of both of these cases are such names as Lynn, Yvonne, Mary, Betty, Elly, and Bryan.

However, if the Y does not provide a separate vowel sound, as when it is coupled with another vowel, it is considered a consonant.

In names such as Maloney or Murray, the Y is a consonant, because the vowel sound depends upon the long E in Maloney and the long A in Murray.

In general, the Y is a consonant when the syllable already has a vowel. Also, the Y is considered a consonant when it is used in place of the soft J sound, such as in the name Yolanda or Yoda.

In the names Bryan and Wyatt, the Y is a vowel, because it provides the only vowel sound for the first syllable of both names. For both of these names, the letter A is part of the second syllable, and therefore does not influence the nature of the Y.

More examples:
In Sydney, the first Y is a vowel, the second Y is a consonant.

In Billy, Sylvia, Missy, Kyle, Blythe, Sylvester, and Katy, the Y is a vowel

In Kay, Yeltsin, May, and Kuykendahl, the Y is a consonant.

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My problem with this answer is that the y in -ey (Sydney) is pronounced the same (for me, anyway) as the -y in Billy. So the fact that two vowels are doing the job of one doesn't make one a consonant, in my book. And I have a hard time with "Yoda" or "Yolanda" because it seems those could have been spelled "Ioda" or "Iolanda" just as easily. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 28 '11 at 15:58
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@Mr. Shiny and New: The word spelled "Ioda" it would probably be pronounced "eye-OH-duh" (compare the real word "iota" - see dictionary.reference.com/browse/iota), whereas "Yoda" is pronounced "YOH-duh". The "i" and the "o" in "iota" have separate vowel sounds, whereas the "y" in "Yoda" has a consonant sound. –  Andy Jan 28 '11 at 16:17
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Oh dear, I think it's pretty strange to call the 'Y' in May a "consonant". It marks the off-glide of a diphthong, which is a vowel sound. I would call things like "ey" and "ay" something like "vowel letter cluster" meaning a cluster of letters indicating a vowel. –  nohat Jan 28 '11 at 18:48
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I think the consonant/vowel dichotomy simply isn't adequate. Phonetics usually refers to y as a semivowel, a member of the sonorants. So I think the answer to 'Is the y in May a vowel' is no, but the answer to 'Is the y in May a consonant' is also no. –  Mark Maxham Jan 29 '11 at 5:24
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Also not being an English speaker, I mostly seem to default to the logic used with an i in Latin. That i acts like a consonant j when it appears before another vowel (except for diphthongs). Consequently, the Latin alphabet did not officially have a j.

As far as I can tell, this is the case with the y in English, though I don't have any sources or statistical evidence to back that claim.


NB: If you had Latin in school and the j was used (eg. jam and pejus instead of iam and peius) then they most likely dumbed it down a bit.

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The "y" is a vowel when it makes an "e" sound. If the "y" doesn't make an "e" sound, the "y" is considered as a consonant. -Mehreen Patel

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What about when it makes a "i" sound, as in hymn? –  Hugo Nov 29 '11 at 11:00
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