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Is the w in cow a vowel or a consonant?
Assuming it is considered a vowel, would it likewise be so in how?

I learned that the vowels are "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y."

If w can be a vowel, what other letters can be vowels?
What is the definition of a vowel?

By the way, I know w can be a vowel, for example in the word cwm, described in the OED as:

A valley; in Physical Geogr., a bowl-shaped hollow partly enclosed by steep walls lying at the head of a valley or on a mountain slope and formed originally by a glacier; a cirque.

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8  
But "cwm" is not an English word; it's borrowed from Welsh. The two languages use most of the same typographic characters (so written Welsh looks superficially like written English), but their sound values are very different. "W" is a vowel in Welsh, not in English. The English equivalent of "cwm" is "coomb", which I (an American speaker) have only ever seen in The Lord of The Rings. –  MT_Head May 15 '11 at 21:15
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I think this is a duplicate of a question that's come up before. From a linguist's point of view, the answer is essentially "this is a pointless question, because vowels and consonants are sounds, not letters". –  Neil Coffey May 15 '11 at 21:15
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@MT_Head: Remember Koom Valley! –  Andrew Grimm May 16 '11 at 3:12
    
@Andrew - I had to Google that. I haven't read nearly as much Discworld as I'd like. –  MT_Head May 16 '11 at 3:51
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Is the 'gh' in Edinburgh a vowel? –  Peter Shor Oct 4 '12 at 4:46

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

(See Semivowels in English and When is Y a vowel? for relevant info)

The sounds represented by the letter 'w' in English spelling are somewhat intermediate between consonants and vowels. Sometimes it is closer to a consonant (namely a semivowel or glide because even though 'w' doesn't result in a substantive occlusion in the airstream, there is a restriction of airflow as with the similar glide y. This occurs when the sound (with corresponding letter) appears at the beginning or middle of a word or syllable.

But the letter can also represent a sound that is closer to a vowel when it is part of a diphthong (a double vowel or a vowel followed by a glide, like in the word 'brown').

Which is all to say that the dichotomy of consonant/vowel, while very useful, does not capture the entire complexity of articulation; there are more overlapping categories between a stop (like 'p') and a pure vowel (like 'a').

As to 'cwm', it is a borrowing like the 'll' in 'Lloyd' that represents a non-native (to English) sound and the non-native spelling.

So to summarize for you explicit questions:

  • 'w' in 'cow' is a glide (which is considered a consonant (but a sonorant which is closer to a vowel))
  • yes, it is the same as in 'how'.
  • if 'w' is vowel-like, 'y' is similarly vowel-like.
  • a vowel is a sound produced by "no build-up of air pressure at any point above the glottis".
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Er, I'm pretty sure that the w in cwm just represents [u] in Welsh, which is a sound that's also present in English. The spelling is the only thing different about it. –  JSBձոգչ May 16 '11 at 1:11
    
@JSBangs: to be frank, I wouldn't have a clue as to how vowels sound in Welsh, so I said it that way to be technically correct without actually knowing. –  Mitch May 16 '11 at 1:27

It's a diphthong.

A diphthong is two vowel sounds in one syllable. The diphthong ow and ou make the ow sound as in cow.

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