Something a bit different today, in the hope of spurring on some cerebral discourse in the comment box.
I wrote the following article ten years ago. Its audience was not, perhaps, the best fit for it, since it garnered more "Huh?" reactions than anything else. But it occurred to me that the article has, perhaps, a home here, among like-minded wordsmiths.
Or, um, bookish geeks. Whichever fits. (I own both descriptions for myself.)
So, I give you THERE ARE SEVEN VOWELS, by pre-Authoress. And I look forward to your comments!
A, E, I, O, U.
The vast majority of us have learned that there are five vowels in the English language. Each vowel has a short sound and a long sound, for a total of ten basic vowel sounds. Add the diphthongs and triphthongs, and one begins to see why foreigners find English a daunting language to learn.
I contend there are two more vowels in the English language: Y and W.
“Y and W?!” you say? “Well, perhaps Y. Yes, we DID learn that Y was sometimes USED as a vowel. But W??” Allow me to stretch your thinking through the next few paragraphs.
In order to proceed, it is important to establish what a vowel is. According to the Centre for English Language Teaching, “Vowels differ from consonants in that there is no noticeable obstruction in the vocal tract during their production. Air escapes in a relatively unimpeded way through the mouth and/or nose.” Try it yourself: say “ooooooo;” “eeeeeee.” Feel how open and free the vowel sounds are. There is no use of the tongue to obstruct the air flow at any point.
Now, let’s take a look at the letter Y. It is simple enough to see why Y has been called “sometimes a vowel,” in that it clearly makes the sound “ee” in words such as “party” and “company.” What about Y at the beginning of a word? Most of us were taught that Y makes the sound “yuh” as a consonant. Think about the sound “yuh.” Does Y really say “yuh” in the word “yellow?” Or would that be “yuh-ellow?”
I contend that Y usually makes the sound “ee,” and occasionally makes a short i sound. Say the word “yellow” very slowly. “Ee-ehl-oh.” There is no “yuh” at the beginning, but merely the “ee” sound of the letter Y. The combination of the “y” and the “e” create the diphthong “ee-eh,” which is the sound that the word “yellow” actually begins with.
Have I lost you yet?
In Spanish, the letter Y is called “y griega” (pronounced “ee gree-eh-gah”), which means “Greek I.” The letter Y, in Spanish, is always pronounced “ee.” It would seem that the Spanish folks understand this letter far better than we English-speakers do! Our English Y is pronounced the same way, yet we have dubbed it a consonant and given it the false phonetic “yuh.” The English Y also exhibits the short I sound in words such as “crystal” and “Phyllis,” although this use of the letter is less common. While the letter Y does not follow the regular rules of the “Big Five” vowels, it acts in all circumstances as a vowel, whether it is at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.
Say these words slowly: Yak. Yolanda. Yosemite. There is no “yuh” in any of them. Only “ee.”
Still reading? Good! Let’s move on to W.
W is almost never taught as a vowel, “semi” or otherwise. Most of us were taught that the letter W is a consonant that makes the sound “wuh.” Let’s take a look at the word “water.” Say it slowly. Does the W say “wuh?” Or would that give the word three syllables: “wuh-aw-ter?”
By listening carefully, we can discern that the letter W is actually making the sound “oo” as in “pool.” “Water” is actually “oo-aw-ter.” Indeed, we can take our cue for the letter W from its name: “Double U.” In the Welsh language, W is equivalent to “oo.” I contend that it is the same in the English language. When W is at the end of a word, such as the word “cow,” it is easier to hear the “oo” sound. In this case, the W joins with the O to form a diphthong, just as it joins with the A in “water” to form a diphthong there. While some linguists would agree that yes, in the word “cow” the W is used as a vowel, they would still insist that W at the beginning of a word is a consonant, because it “acts” like one.
How does a vowel “act” like a consonant? If we use the definition of “vowel” that I gave at the beginning of this article, then by definition a vowel cannot act like a consonant, because consonants incur the use of the tongue to obstruct the airflow at some point (except H, which uses no voice at all). Can a vowel be “acting” like a consonant, then, simply because it is found at the beginning of a word? Is the A in “apple” acting like a consonant? I say, a vowel is a vowel! It does not “act” like anything; it merely states itself, regardless of its placement in a given word.
A letter is either a vowel or a consonant; it cannot be both. I believe that Y and W are, in the purest sense, vowels, each one exhibiting one of the ten basic vowel sounds in the English language. I don’t expect a Nobel prize for this, but it does make for interesting banter. Even if my readers disagree with my naming of the sixth and seventh vowels, one would hope that, at least, it can be freely admitted that Y and W certainly do NOT say “yuh” and “wuh,” respectively.
There are indeed seven vowels, two of which have been tossed by the wayside. What has happened in the English language to obscure their identities, I cannot say. I, for one, will continue to wave the flag for Y and W, the unsung vowels.