Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Fricassee

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.


  1. I'm right there with you on this! I used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons to teach my youngest two to read (I homeschool) and, besides it being the easiest and most totally-makes-sense way to teach a child to read, it also teaches exactly this! Not that Y and W are vowels, (which would probably confuse kindergarteners), but that Y says "eee" and W says "ooo." When you teach children that, they get MUCH less confused sounding out those words, because you're absolutely right...that IS the sounds they make.

    And now that I think about it, I vaguely remember learning in...oh...2nd grade, maybe, that two other "consonents" were vowels, though I think they were Y and H. (It's a very vague memory that comes back ever once in a while.)

    So what about H? How is that obstructed?

    Actually, I vaguely remember

  2. Authoress, dear, I think you've lost it. (I know, it was a stressful week.)

    I say all this with greatest respect.

    (Insert smiley face)

  3. Have you read, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn? I think you'd appreciate it.

  4. I love this post!

    And, you know, I always thought the W was a little suspicious, what with that name and the way it sits awkwardly in words like "awkward."

  5. Okay, somebody FedEx Authoress some chocolate covered cashews! PRONTO!


  6. If I didn't before, I now heart you for this post.

    (regular reader, infrequent commenter)

  7. Heh<:

    I'm not sure if I get this...

    Y = Yuh sound, because that best emphasizes the way you move your tongue to pronounce it. Er... or something. Though I concede it actually makes more of a "Yeh" sound.

    If you use the Spanish 'Y' sound, then you would have to second guess the way other cultures pronounce 'w' where they see it as a 'v'.

    Or more so, you could go into 'j' which has a 'yuh' sound in other languages. :)

    Yes, it does make an 'ee' sound, but only in specific cases. Like at the end of most words.

    I've been sitting here muttering under my breath to figure out whether I say 'ooerds' when I mean to say 'words'... and I'm pretty sure the difference comes down to how I hold my mouth. There is a slight difference though.

    I think that's why in phonics we were taught the 'wuh' sound. Because it emphasizes how to move our mouth.

  8. This makes perfect sense! Why don't they teach it in schools?

  9. Okay, so between the post and the comments, my brain hurts. And I'm a grammar teacher. Even with all the proof in front of my face, it's like how I feel about aliens.
    (Strange comparison, I know) My brain can't wrap around it.

  10. Wow. I mean, whew. Oh, wait. Yikes-you're right! LOL!

  11. Your analysis is entirely correct from a linguistic point of view. Linguists, however, often reserve the term "vowel" for sounds which are both non-obstructed in the main oral cavity and that are syllabic, meaning that they can form a syllable around them. By this definition, the main difference between "i" and "y" is that "y" is not syllabic. We use the term vocoids to refer to syllabic and non-syllabic sounds together.

    More fun: vowels aren't the only thing that can be syllabic! Say "able". Most people pronounce this word without any vowel after the "b": they don't really say "ay-buhl", they say "ay-blll". This is called a syllabic l. English also has syllabic r and n.

    @Kathleen: "h" is obstructed in the glottis, which is a little thing in your throat that closes up to keep food and water from getting into your lungs.

  12. 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.”

    I kept going back to this line and I think I know what's bothering me.

    I pronounce water this way:
    wah-ter. <- REALLY.

    And then my dad pronounces water this way:


    Maybe it's just some people who have seven vowels? :]

  13. Fifty years ago (okay, 51 if we're going to be precise), I was taught this very thing in 3rd Grade by Mrs. Peters. For years and years and years, I firmly believed this, but I'll be hanged if I could remember any examples of "w" as a vowel.

    So, thank you for this! And thank you very much to @tamimoore for pointing me here. :)

  14. I love linguistics! I vote that we all switch to the linguistic alphabet, which actually represents sounds and not subjective spelling rules.

    It's funny you write this article today. A friend and I were talking about linguistics and pronunciation just last night.

    Did you know that the letter "t" often makes a sound that has no letter in the alphabet? Many people pronounce "mountain" as "mou'ain". It's just a glottal stop. People drop the "tuh" sound when the "t" is preceded by a vowel or nasal, and either is followed by another nasal or is located at the end of a word. Usually.

    Sorry! I'm babbling. Very cool article.

  15. Ah, the divergence between written and spoken English, between "proper" pronunciation and regional dialects. A fun and fascinating topic. I'll buy Y as a vowel, but W and H...what? :-)

  16. Wonderful article! As an elementary school teacher I was bombarded with phonetic materials. Very often they were not correct. When I began teaching my daughter the alphabet I drew my own flashcards, so that I could be sure they were correct (and words/pictures she could relate to).

  17. 19 vowels!


    It may be helpful to think of the vowel SOUNDS rather than letters. As any poor speller knows, English doesn't have a really strong sound-letter correspondence. There are 19 vowel SOUNDS in the English language. We use a combination of only a few letters to represent those sounds in our spelling system. (That makes an argument over 5 vs. 7 vowel letters less confusing.)

    Link to a list of the 19 vowel sounds:

    (I teach English to speakers of other languages. We deal with the pronunciation ramifications of 19 vowel sounds all the time. Spanish, for example, only has 5 vowel sounds. )

  18. Dipthong...that's such a great word. I think I'm going to screw with some of my no-so-literate-friends and call them that.
    I can hear it now. "Don't be such a dipthong, Joe."
    "What did you call me?!"

  19. I love this post! In college I learned phonetics in my theatre and spanish classes.

  20. My first thought was of 'H', too.

    Interesting add on explanation JS Bangs.

    What fun food for thought on a Friday morning.

    Speaking of syllables - southern dialect has a lot more syllables than northern. It's why radio commercials have to be even tighter for the southern markets.

  21. Okay I had to experiment with the whole W as a vowel thing. I found I do a slight tightening in the back of my throat with the w that I do not do when I'm making the oo sound. I also hold my lips differently when pronouncing the w sound as opposed to the oo . . . but maybe it's just me.

    Still, this is fascinating reading and the comments have been great. Nice article and topic for discussion, Authoress. =D

  22. While I don't agree 100% with the reasoning (the ooo-ness of /w/), I do agree that /w/ should be taught with the vowels. I have a Bachelor's in Linguistics, and /w/ is a glide, typically considered a vowel by many contemporary linguists, not only in English but in other languages. So, you're not crazy, as some may suggest :)

  23. While I don't agree 100% with the reasoning (the ooo-ness of /w/), I do agree that /w/ should be taught with the vowels. I have a Bachelor's in Linguistics, and /w/ is a glide, typically considered a vowel by many contemporary linguists, not only in English but in other languages. So, you're not crazy, as some may suggest :)

  24. As a retired elementary teacher, I had to chime in on this one. What I learned over 50 years ago and what I taught for over 30 years is that there are 7 vowels--a,e,i,o,u, and sometimes y and sometimes w. And although y does make a long e sound, it is usually found at the end of words or syllables like January and February. W is usually used used as a vowel in dipthongs as someone else has already mentioned--ow, and ew and aw. As for H, I consider it a consonant that is often silent at the beginning of words, which is why we say "an honor" (pronounced an onor). Hope this hasn't muddied the waters further!

  25. Don't forget the Welsh adoption: cwm. Yes, it's in the dictionary. It's pronounced Koom and means valley. Which will tickle all Terry Pratchett fans pink, blue, and yuh-ellow.


  26. Is this really what linguists spend their time figuring out?

    I am enlightened, but my mind is now a bit warped... wait, is the 'w' in 'now' a vowel? What about the 'w' in 'warped' (oo-ar-ped)? *sigh*

  27. I just wrote a whole diatribe on the subject and completely lost it all. But you have touched on a subject dear to my heart (which is lost at the moment in frustration and anger). From now on I cut and paste!

    Basically what I was saying was this.

    English is mashed potato. The rules we know today are tampered with, and made as one size fits all. They are wrong, wrong, wrong. First of all I became aware of sounds when I studied Pitman Shorthand. Without realising it I was learning to use symbols rather than letting the printed word block my linguistic sensibilities.

    Basically consonants and vowels are floating entities. Consonents are hard sounds. The ‘l’ in look is a hard sound. The ‘l’ in could is a soft sound. Of course this sound is lost on us today. But once it was a vowel sound. A crude attempt at capturing a sound it was meant to convey.

    Firstly may I recommend you go directly to Amazon and order yourself a copy of THE ADVENTURE OF ENGLISH. A BIOGRAPHY OF LANGUAGE by MelvYn Bragg. He talks of English in a section on which he describes as GVS which means Great Vowel Shift. He says that printing largely fixed spelling pre GVS but that took place after the setting of words. Thus a language which is in turbulence with its printed equivalent ends in the two being out of sync.


    “When properly read aloud, the fourteenth century English of Chaucer sounds strange to modern ears in a way that, on the whole, the late sixteenth century English of Shakespear does not. For example, Chaucer’s way of saying “name” would have rhymed with the modern “calm”, his “fine” with our “seen”; he would have pronounced “meet more or less as we would pronounce “mate,” “do” as “doe” and “cow” as “coo” (as it is prounced in parts of Scotland).
    “In the years between Chaucer’s birth and Shakespeare’s death, English went through a process now known as the Great Vowel Shift. People in the Midlands and south of England changed the way they pronounce long vowels… (held in mouth long time) (meet, street) rather than short vowels (met, mat). Unquote.

    He goes on to say on this subject that the invention of printing had an impact on language and the written word. Gutenberg in Mainz invented printing (press) in Mainz in 1453. And Caxton started printing English in 1453. The first dated book printed in England in English was Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres 1477. Caxton also printed romances, books of conduct and philosophy, history and morality and the first illustrated printed book in English was “The Myrrour of the Worlde 1481. Caxton worried about how to achieve a common standard. Caxton wrote “Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyuersite & chaunge of langage. For in these dayes euery man that is in ony reputacyon in his counter, wyll vtter his commynycacyon and maters in suche maners and termes that few men shall vnderstonde theym.”

    So really the vowels and consonants are loose translations for modern logics of today. They crude. Logically a consonant should be a hard sound. And a vowel a soft sound. I learned Hebrew and I find that – apart from being a neater language – its written word illustrates the vowel sounds apart from the hard sounds. Almost the way Pitman symbols do. Of course to a native Hebrew speaker they would read words out of familiarity much the same way we English speakers read and are not disturbed by words such as could, would, wrong, write etc. And understand how one mouse turns into two mice, while one house turns into two houses, but that’s another whole chapter isn’t it. Sheesh who’d want to learn English!

    But basically, your suspicions on lurking vowels is very very logical and we are all heading up the garden path where the sign says THIS IS HOW YOU MUST GO AND DON’T ARGUE WITH ME. But you know better.

  28. @Zara, there is no "l" sound at all in "could". It's in the spelling, but completely absent in pronunciation. Consider that in most (American) dialects, "could" rhymes with "hood". Does "hood" have an "l" sound in it?

    In any case, the rest of your post is very accurate. I've been sort of pleasantly surprised at the level of linguistic sophistication here. Seeing as the standard educational curriculum in most places doesn't contain any linguistics at all, it's not surprising that people are confused, but the level of outright wrongness has been pretty low.

  29. I think you make a good point. As usual :)

    I'd like to give you an award over at my blog

    Stop by to pick it up!


  30. Though I don't *entirely* agree, I do have to say, that was fun.

    @Annarkie: That is a fantastic idea.

    @Zara: Yes. English is TOTALLY a mashed potato. With sour cream and cheese and bacon bits and all sorts of other stuff thrown in. XD

  31. I'm a bookish geek, and I still say Huh?

    A vowel is defined as one of them letters that everyone refers to as vowels. Anything else breeds confusion.

    And Pluto is a planet by the same principle.

  32. I love your blog. :)

    Y an W are technically considered semivowels, also known as glides. Therefore, in linguistics they go on the consonant chart, not the vowel chart, though really they are something in between. But I agree that in English a Y does not always make the IPA y sound (represented by a j.) It often makes an ee sounds, like W will often make an oo sound, perhaps because of Welsh influence.

    I think the way vowels are taught should be reformed, because the whole system of long and short vowels is completely wrong. The vowels they show as being long or short are in fact different phonemes, whereas real long and short vowels are the same, just elongated. But I guess the reason this has persisted is because there is so much discrepancy between written and spoken English. Official spellings were established somewhere between the invention of the printing press and the advent of dictionaries, while the spoken language continued to change. Though, really, many of the spellings never made sense to begin with.

  33. What about h and p and m.

    Huh- huheat
    Puh- pueet
    Muh- muheet.

    Using your "qualification" I could argue every letter in the alphabet is a vowel.

    People said "huh" the first time around because this it leaves people scratching their head as to why anyone would think this is a good idea.

    Y is a vowle only when it acts like and I- shy. The y in Yoyo and shy are NOT the same. Show me one word in the English language where the W does this.

    Do you know how many sounds are in the English language?

    Hint: 26 is the wrong number.

    And the phonetic spelling of water is [waw-ter, wot-er] not oo-aw-ter.

    Head desk, head desk, head desk.

    "There are indeed seven vowels, two of which have been tossed by the wayside." Head desk, head desk, head desk. Where's you historical reference? Have you studied the history of the English language? Have you ever opened and OED? (Do you even know that is?) Where are your sources? Are there any language experts in existence with a paper on this?

    "I dont expect a Nobel prize for this" but you do think you're smarter than the thousand of people you actually study language. "Look what I thought of ma!" head desk, head desk, head desk.

    Please put your ego on a leash, it's not doing you any favors.

    "Oh but people agree with this! You're just jealous."

    head desk, head desk, head desk.

  34. I like this. It is easy, makes sense but doesn't take into account that in different English dialects both Y and W are sometimes pronounced as consonants ( e.g. y as j) and sometimes as vowels.

    Still, I envy all English speaker for in German (my mother tongue) there are more: a, e, i, o, u, ei, eu, ae, ie, oe, ue, au (that's all I can think of right now but I have the strangest feeling that there were still more)

    Languages are so much fun, aren't they? ;-)

  35. Anonymous is the name of a coward castle. And you are the Lord.

    Your arrogance is an indication of your ignorance.