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My son and I were reciting the Spanish alphabet recently. "Y" is i griega, which means "Greek i." This got me thinking about the English letter Y and its function in our alphabet.

All of the words I could think of would be pronounced the same way whether we spelled them with an i or a y. For example:

dye or die
chimera or chymera
wild or wyld

Is there any case where Y makes a sound which could not be represented by I? If they don't overlap completely, when are they different, and is it for certain types of words (for instance, could we substitute "i" in all words with Greek roots that contain "y")?

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Do you mean phonetically interchangeable, then? (Not spelling-wise?) –  Daniel Sep 12 '11 at 0:32
This doesn't make sense. 'i' and 'y' are letters -for- spelling, and so cannot be interchanged (because spelling is pretty normative and so only one spelling is usually ever allowed). Suppose one does exchange one for the other...the rules for the other letter, even in the same contexts, aren't the same. 'Yes' -> 'Ies'? Very' -> 'Veri'? 'Weird' -> 'Weyrd'? –  Mitch Sep 12 '11 at 1:03
I originally found this question very confusing, but I edited it to reflect what I believe the intent to be. Let me know if I understood you wrong. –  JSBձոգչ Sep 12 '11 at 1:24
@JSBᾶngs I think you've captured the intent of the question well, and thank you for that. I removed the spelling tag though, because I thought it would cause more confusion. –  KitFox Sep 12 '11 at 1:27
I greca is how y is called in Italian; it's the literal translation of the Spanish i griega. –  kiamlaluno Sep 12 '11 at 12:58
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1 Answer

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, while there are some cases in which I and Y can be used to represent the same sound, it is not always the case. They write that there are three situations in which a Y is used:

  1. About the middle of the 13th century y began to be used to represent the voiced palatal spirant /j/ , taking the place of the character ȝ (called yogh n., q.v.) in one of its values. -- This use is retained in words like "year", "yet" and "young"

  2. Another value of y arises from the assimilation of y and þ, the runic thorn (see th n.), which had become indistinguishable from each other in some MSS. of the early 14th century (e.g. the Cotton MS. of Cursor Mundi). After 1400 þ fell more and more out of use, and in some scripts was represented only by the y-form in the compendia ye, yt or yat, yei, ym, yu = the, that, they, them, thou, and the like, many of which continued to be extensively employed in manuscript in the 17th and 18th centuries. -- This use has largely fallen out of common practice

  3. In later (West Saxon) Old English, y was written alternatively for i, e.g. as representing older ie, as in cyle, ongytan, yld, for ciele, ongietan, ield

In its third use, I and Y were interchangeable into Middle English, but after that orthographic rules were put into place, and Y was only used in the following cases:

(i) for final i-sounds, as in fly, family, daily, destroy (formerly spelt also flie and flye, familie and familye, etc.), only alien words being spelt with final i;

(ii) in Greek words, representing υ, as in hymn;

(iii) before i, in inflexional forms of verbs ending in y or ie, as flying, lying, tying, not fliing, etc.;

(iv) in the plural of nouns ending in y preceded by another written vowel, as boy boys, ray rays, alley alleys, money moneys (but monies is still common, and vallies, monkies, etc. were equally so until recently).

So in some instances, I and Y could be interchanged because they can represent the same vowel sound. However, there are now rules about when Y should be used to present this same vowel sound at all.

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Nice history. The main contrastive case being case number 1, right? (There aren't many cases of I representing /j/, are there?) I suppose I wouldn't pronounce "iellow", "iour", or "iak" the same way as in their current spelling anyway. :) –  tdhsmith Sep 12 '11 at 1:58
@lettuce_pants: As far as I can tell, y is the only letter used for the first two cases. As a strict vowel sound (case 3), both I and Y were used. –  simchona Sep 12 '11 at 2:00
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