Possible Duplicates:
When is “Y” a vowel?
Is the 'w' in 'cow' a vowel or a consonant?

Are W and Y vowels? I learned it depends on the conditions. But I don't know what conditions.


2 Answers 2


A "vowel" in an alphabet is a letter representing a sound with with a sustained voiced tone using an open throat, mouth and lips, usually differentiated by the position of the tongue and lips, as compared to a "consonant" which is any other phoneme, usually characterized by lip and teeth positions (labiodental, bilabial, alveolar, glottal), instant or sustained (plosive, fricative) and whether voiced or unvoiced. Vowels are always voiced, and have no attack of their own.

So, by this definition, yes, "y" and "w" can represent vowel sounds in words. Usually, when they do represent vowels, they are used in conjunction with one or more other vowels to create a polypthong: "w" represents "oo" and "y" represents "ee". For example, the word "way" is pronounced "oo-a-ee". "sweet" and "how" are other w examples, while "hay", "say" and "yes" are good examples of Y's normal behavior. This makes the letters Y and W best described as "vowel modifiers". They are rarely seen representing their voiced sound without another vowel adjacent, so they are not considered full vowels.

Further complicating things, w has both voiced and unvoiced qualities, a result of the evolution of the Latin alphabet to replace runic alphabets in Germanic languages. It also picked up other tricks; W in combination with H is usually unvoiced (though some dialects voice "wh" as if it were "w"), representing an unvoiced rounded lip alveolar fricative; basically forming "oo" and saying "h". Also, depending on the word origin, "w" may use its Romantic pronunciation of the semi-voiced labiovelar approximant (a "soft v").

"Y" has no such multiple personalities; it is always a vowel or vowel modifier trending a monopthong or dipthong vowel sound toward "ee". However, it is rarely seen on its own; the main exceptions are as the last sound of a word such as "Christianity", "slowly", or "happy". In most other cases, if "ee" is desired, it is used, or alternately the German-derived "ie". So again, since it rarely stands on its own, it's not considered a "full" vowel.

  • N.B. A vowel is a sound, not a letter! Jul 13, 2011 at 19:31
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    We're talking about letters of the alphabet, which are classed as "vowels" and "consonants" according to the sounds they represent. So, a "vowel" letter represents a vowel sound. "A", the letter, is called a vowel, because of the sound(s) it represents in the spoken language.
    – KeithS
    Jul 13, 2011 at 19:36
  • Except that the correspondence isn't always 1-1, and that's the source of the confusion. For that reason, I think we should avoid the confusion by defining letters as being intrinsically "vowel"/"consonant"s. Those labels are fine informally for the purpose of playing countdown, but in a scientific context are inappropriate and lead to confusion. Jul 13, 2011 at 19:43
  • A good detailed answer, but there's too much linguistic jargon and technicality in it. I think I can speak for other laymen (when it comes to vocal physiology and linguistics) that this answer just lost me!
    – Noldorin
    Jul 13, 2011 at 21:54
  • Also, I disagree with your pronunciation of "way". As a Brit, this is not how you say it, but perhaps you are an American/other English speaker. I can't think of any cases in which I pronoune "w" as a vowel in fact. (It's origin as "double" the Latin letter 'u' suggests otherwise perhaps. I believe it was an Anglo-Saxon later invention upon the inherited Latin alphabet though.)
    – Noldorin
    Jul 13, 2011 at 21:56

A vowel is basically a letter you pronounce with an open vocal tract. Y is a semivowel because sometimes you pronounce it with the tract open (as in sky) and sometimes not (as in yesterday). Pay attention to the position of your tongue when pronouncing vowels and consonants and you will notice the difference.

  • So, can I safely assume if my tongue position is like sky then its vowel, otherwise its consonant? And what about W? Jul 13, 2011 at 18:52
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    @iamcreasy - w is only used as a vowel very rarely in English, and always (or almost always) in loanwords from other languages. The only one I can think of at the moment is cwm, which is from Welsh.
    – phenry
    Jul 13, 2011 at 19:03
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    NO NO NO NO NO! I think this is really important: a vowel is a category of sound, nothing to do with writing. Thinking of the letter as intrinsically being what the "vowel" is is the whole source of the confusion!!!! Jul 13, 2011 at 19:31
  • @phenry - actually, W is voiced more often than not, as "oo". However, it almost never stands on its own as that sound; it always "pairs up" with another vowel to form a dipthong beginning or ending in "oo". The only major use of the unvoiced w is in combination with "h" to form the "rounded alveolar fricative".
    – KeithS
    Jul 13, 2011 at 19:38

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