A, E, I, O, U… and sometimes Y. How can it be that the relatively exclusive set of vowels has a member that only sometimes counts? Is y a consonant, or a vowel? Is “rhythm” really the longest word without a vowel? And, if y is a vowel, perhaps we should ask the most apt question of all: why?
Let me explain.
To understand what a vowel is, we have to understand how the human body makes sounds. In your throat, you have a set of vocal folds – skin flaps that can vibrate when you push air from your lungs up through them. This vibration makes a sound: our voices. The speed these flaps vibrate at, determined by how long and taut they are, change the pitch of our voices. Once the air is through your vocal folds, it then has to make it out of your mouth. This part of the process – the supralaryngeal tract (literally meaning “above the larynx”) – is what determines if a sound is a vowel or a consonant.
A consonant is a sound made when there is obstruction at some point in the supralaryngeal tract. The flow of air is either stopped completely, as with [t], [k], [d], or forced through a narrow opening, like [s], [v], or [h]. We create contrast in our consonants through varying the kinds of obstruction (like whether it’s a complete block (called a plosive) or a narrow gap (called a fricative), among others), varying where in the mouth the obstruction occurs ([b] occurs between your lips, so it’s bilabial, while [t] occurs when your tongue meets your teeth, so it’s dental), and whether your vocal folds are vibrating (if they are, it’s voiced, like [v], if they aren’t, it’s voiceless, like [f]). The noise a consonant makes is determined by how the airflow is interrupted.
In contrast, a vowel is a sound made when there is no obstruction in the supralaryngeal tract. If you open your mouth wide and push air up through your lungs, you will be making a vowel sound. The way we create contrast in vowel sounds is by changing the shape of your supralaryngeal tract. If you ever blew across the top of a glass bottle, you would know that moving air around a cavity makes a sound. If you have tried it with different bottles, or with it being filled to varying levels, you’d know that changing the shape of the cavity changes the sound. That’s how we make different vowel sounds. To map the different shapes our mouths make, consider the vowel quadrilateral:
Imagine that this quadrilateral is superimposed on your mouth while your head is turned to the side, with “front” and “back” aligned with the front and back of your mouth accordingly; your top front teeth are around where [i] is. The space in the quadrilateral consists of all the possible places the top of your tongue could be in your mouth, and the dots on the diagram represent where your tongue is when you make each sound. You can move your tongue between the front and back of your mouth (try transitioning from saying “ee”, as in “sheep”, to “oo”, as in “food” – your tongue will move from front to back). You can make your mouth more closed, as in [i] (“ee”), or more open, as in [a] (like “car”). You can round your lips (like in “oo”) or have them unrounded (like in “ee”). There are a finite number of consonants, but you can have infinite vowel sounds, and indeed, they change most fluidly over time and across accents. If you have the time and software, you can map your own personal vowel quad by recording how you pronounce certain vowels and plotting them on a graph.
With all of this considered, what, then, is y? Unsatisfyingly, the answer is that it is both – not because a single sound can be both a consonant and a vowel, but because y isn’t a single sound. As you are probably already aware, the relationship between the way we spell and pronounce words in English is highly irregular. We have single characters which correspond to a range of sounds, and sometimes overlap with the sounds they represent. “C” in “cloud” sounds like “k” in “break”, but the first “c” in “circle” sounds like “s” in “sand”. Almost every letter in “knight” can be found in different words pronounced differently to how they are here. The reason for the inconsistency between phonetics (the way we say words) and orthography (the way we spell words) has a range of causes. English speakers have many more sounds in our inventories – over 40 – than we do letters – only 26. This means there have to be double-ups. Many words used to have multiple spellings, contributing to inconsistency, and the way we pronounce words has also changed at a different rate to the way we spell them. On top of this chaos, English takes influences from a bunch of different languages which each have their own unique orthographic and phonetic inventories and interrelations. It’s a mess.
In the midst of this mess is y. In words like “yam” and “royal”, y is a consonant, represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as [j]. [j] is a voiceless (no vocal fold movement), palatal (occurring at the soft palate) approximant (the airway is constricted, but not too much). This sound appears in English in other contexts, too: words like “universe”, which are spelt with a “u” but start with [j]. That’s why, by the way, we say “a universe” rather than “an universe”; they’re not spelt like it, but those words start with consonants.
In words like “pretty”, “fly”, and “Egypt”, y is a vowel. The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that [y] is on the vowel quadrilateral, but that symbol doesn’t actually represent one we have in English – it can be found in languages like French. To understand what it sounds like, try making the sound “ee” and then forcing your lips to round. In the examples I listed, y covers a range of vowel sounds: [i], [ai], and [ɪ] respectively. Sadly, this means that “rhythm” actually does have a vowel in it; it actually has two (one between the “r” and “th” sounds, and another between “th” and “m”). I don’t think there are any English words without a vowel sound.
Is y a vowel? Yes and no. Sorry to disappoint. English is just a weird and inconsistent language. Hopefully, though, you’ve learnt something new about sound and language, and that’s all we can ask for.