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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
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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.

  • 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 '14 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 '14 at 19:40
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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/).

  • 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
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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)

  • 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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There's no simple rule. In general, when "y" represents a vowel, it is pronounced just the same as the letter "i" would be.

The issue is that "i" has multiple pronunciations. It can be pronounced variously as

  • /aɪ/ ("long i")
  • /ɪ/ ("short i")
  • an unstressed, reduced vowel realized as /ɪ/ or /ə/, depending on one's accent (the vowel in the second syllable of "rabbit")
  • an unstressed vowel realized as /ɪ/ or /iː/, depending on one's accent (the vowel in the second syllable of "happy")

Useful rules of thumb

There are some general rules you can use to try to predict the pronunciation from the spelling of a word, but there are often exceptions to these rules.

Here are some of the more useful and reliable ones:

With very few exceptions, "Y" (or "I") is pronounced as /ɪ/ ("short i") when it comes before any of the following:

  • a consonant or consonant cluster that is followed immediately by the end of the word (e.g. "cyst", "myth")
  • a doubled consonant letter (e.g. "abyssal")
  • any consonant cluster that could not be pronounced at the start of an English word (e.g. "gypsum"; no English word starts with the /ps/ sound sequence found in this word)
  • a consonant cluster starting with the letter "s" (e.g. "crystal")
  • a single consonant followed by "i" and another vowel letter (e.g. "myriad", "Syria")

When "Y" comes before a single consonant (or a consonant cluster that can occur at the start of a word) followed by a vowel letter, it might be pronounced as /aɪ/ ("long i"). However, /ɪ/ ("short i") is also an option here. There are some patterns to which one is used, but they are somewhat complicated and a number of exceptions to them exist, so I won't mention them here. Some of them are mentioned in the following Wikipedia article: Traditional English pronunciation of Latin

In words with multiple syllables, the pronunciation of vowel letters is highly dependent on the placement of tonic stress, which unfortunately is not marked in English spelling and which cannot be determined by any simple rule.

The pronunciation of "syrup" is tricky

"Syrup" is a tricky example word to discuss because various pronunciations exist. Some people say /⁠ˈsɪrəp/ with a "short i" sound. Many North American English speakers have a general shift of /ɪr/ to /ir/ (the "long e" sound followed by "r"), so they say /ˈsirəp/. Other speakers say /ˈsɜrəp/, with the vowel of "nurse": this is an irregular sound change that pretty much only applies to this word (although it somewhat resembles the more widespread use of the "nurse" vowel in the word "squirrel," and I believe dialectally the "nurse" vowel may be used in "spirit"). You can see an overview map of the North American pronunciations on the website of the Harvard Dialect Survey. Almost exactly half of their respondents used the "nurse" vowel in "syrup."

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To illustrate the inconsistency, consider that the "y" is pronounced like a "long i" in "cycle" and "unicycle" while it is pronounced like a "short i" in "bicycle" and "tricycle".

  • So is your answer, "Yes, there is a rule about how to pronounce Y," or "No, there isn't a rule," and what does it have to do with whether the words originated from Greek? And do you have any references to illustrate that origins or pronunciations? – jejorda2 Oct 14 '15 at 20:45

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