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I want someone to clarify if there is a rule about how to pronounce the letter Y

I've read in another stackexchange post that when it is in a Greek-origin word it is pronounced as uh e.g. analysis, paralysis.

However in another Greek-origin word, asylum, it is pronounced as i while the in the latin word syrup it is pronounced as /i/.

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Mmmm, I have to suspect that any attempt to find a generally applicable rule about pronunciation in English is a fool's errand. If nothing else, regional variations would doom the effort. see-rup? Maybe in Tennessee... –  Malvolio May 8 '12 at 23:19
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Even your two examples contain within themselves their own contradiction: in analysis the Y is pronounced as "uh" (I think I'd call it "ih", myself) but in analyze it's a long I. Same for paralysis/paralyze. –  MT_Head May 8 '12 at 23:23
    
I don't think this should be all that much of a mystery... –  J.R. May 14 '12 at 8:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

No.

There are no rules for how to pronounce the letter Y -- or rather there are too many rules, and none of them work. Similarly, there are also no good rules for how to pronounce any other letter of the English alphabet. Modern English spelling does NOT represent pronunciation in Modern English.

Rather, it represents one spelling (there were many) for Middle English pronunciation, which got fixed when printing became established in England, right before the end of the Great Vowel Shift. Spelling used to be free, like handwriting is now; but printing froze it, a little too soon to get a good spelling for Modern English. Too bad, but we're stuck with it now.

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But what about the letter "y" in suffixes? Would it be correct to say that the suffix "fy", (from Old French meaning "make" as in "clarify") is always /ai/. And suffixes -ity and -ty are always /i/? –  Laure Apr 3 at 19:00
    
Normally the same word is pronounced the same way every time it's said, however it's spelled. Otherwise we couldn't tell when somebody'd made a spelling error. –  John Lawler Apr 3 at 19:40

The "other stackexchange post" is wrong on two counts.

First, as you point out, there are plenty of words of Greek origin where it is pronounced /aɪ/, such as most words containing "phyto-".

Secondly, there are plenty of words of Greek origin where it is pronounced /ɪ/ (like "pin"), for example in "syzygy", where for me the first two vowels both rhyme with "sit" (though I think for some the second "y" is /ə/).

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It’s even more complicated that that, because although the sound of the y in hydrogen is [aɪ], that of the one in phyto- is actually [ʌɪ] for many speakers. Same phoneme, different allophones. It’s called “Canadian raising”, but happens not just in (most of) Canada but also in much of the United States. People don’t even realize they do it, but they do. The Wikipedia article has some musing about the possible relation of this phenomenon to the Great Vowel Shift. –  tchrist May 9 '12 at 2:34

The vowel y has three predominant sounds, and they mimic the long and short sounds of the vowel i, and the long sound of the vowel e.

Examples of the long i sound: cry, sty, dye, type, pylon, hyphen, cycle, hyperbole, xylophone.

Examples of the short i sound: gym, hymn, cynic, lynx, crystal, typical, syllable, homonym.

When the y is pronounced with the long e sound, you typically find that at the end of a word, or the end of a prefix to a word.

Examples of the long e sound: happy, bevy, candy, dizzy, polygraph, and almost any word ending with the suffix -ly.

John is correct when he says that the pronunciation rules are too complex to summarize easily. One good example is the word cycle, which has the long i sound – but, for some reason, after adding a prefix (i.e., bicycle, tricycle) the y is typically pronounced with the short i sound!

And Malvolio's point is well-taken, too. I'm classifying these according to what you'd find in the pronunciation guide of a dictionary. What you'd actually hear might vary according to regional and local accents. Remember:

"There is no 'correct' pronunciation of anything." (Barrie England)

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But is "y" a vowel? I was taught that it was a consonant, and for this reason the article to be used before words beginning in "y" was to be "a" (for example, a yellow scarf, a yew tree, a yam, etc) –  Paola May 9 '12 at 0:49
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@Paola: A y is the one letter in the English language that can function as a consonant and as a vowel. Children are often taught the vowels as follows: "a, e, i, o, and u... and sometimes y." –  J.R. May 9 '12 at 0:56
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@Paola Y is a monophthong in rhythm, a diphthong in rhyme, and a consonant in yellow (or a different kind of diphthong in some analyses). I don’t know what you want to call the ones in yay!, but most of us call that entire word a triphthong. –  tchrist May 9 '12 at 2:45
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And since wow is clearly another triphthong, that means w must be a vowel, too. We sure have a lot more vowels than we lie to our children about. –  tchrist May 9 '12 at 2:58
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Mmhmm... there are a handful of onomatopoeic words that don't have "traditional" vowels; I think this Wikipedia page discusses the topic fairly well. (About 90% of the 310 words in that list use "y" as a vowel in the traditional "and sometimes y" sense.) In English, I guess the only "rule" without exceptions is "there's an exception to every rule." Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to catch a few zzzs. –  J.R. May 9 '12 at 9:21

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