Y? Or Y Not?

The writing assignment for Melanie Tem‘s next writing group session is to write a story using only one vowel. I wrote a short-short using E about a prostitute named Sweet Jem, but I used the letter Y. When I read the story aloud to my wife, she stopped me at the word “endlessly,” claiming the Y in that word was a vowel.

I was ready for her, I thought. “I checked it out on Wikipedia,” I said. “It says there that it’s considered a consonant, but used more commonly as a vowel.” Since we were dealing with the spoken word, I could get away with that without a hyperlink. But this is the Internet, and rather than hold forth without substantiation, here’s the full quote and link:

The letter Y was originally established as a vowel. In the standard English language, the letter Y is traditionally regarded as a consonant, but as a survey of almost any English text, including this one, will show, Y more commonly functions as a vowel. In many cases, it is known as a semivowel (a type of consonant). — (Wikipedia, “Y” entry.)

I finished reading my short-short to her, and we let it stand.

Tonight, at Stories for All Seasons, we ran into Melanie. I told her that I might have cheated because I used “Y” for my assignment. She seemed to agree with Lannette that “Y” was ineligible, but also acknowledged that it was a consonant at times. “In school, they taught us that the vowels were A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y,” she said. Her husband, Steve Rasnic Tem, happened to be passing by and said, “They also taught us that the Indians were treated fairly.” (I may be paraphrasing; I don’t remember the exact words, because I was laughing too hard.)

If you know me, you know that I can’t just let this sit. I thought I had dodged the need to figure it out by checking Wikipedia, but as Melanie pointed out, anyone can edit Wikipedia. (That’s true, but anyone else can call “bullshit” and correct it, too. In recent studies, Wikipedia’s accuracy has been found comparable to the Encyclopedia Britannica, at least as far as scientific topics go. However, in an interesting parallel to Wikipedia’s own model of peer review, those studies are also in dispute, not surprisingly, by the Encyclopedia Britannica.) At any rate, Melanie’s comment did prompt me to do more research.

According to AskOxford.com, Y is both a consonant and a vowel, but:

The letter is probably more often used as a vowel, but in this role is often interchangeable with the letter I. However, the consonant sound is not consistently represented in English spelling by any other letter, and perhaps for this reason Y tends traditionally to be counted among the consonants.

That paragon of online dependability, Dictionary.com, says this:

The consonant sound Y is not consistently represented in English spelling by any other letter, which is probably why we tend to think of it mainly as a consonant.

Okay, so we have justification for calling Y a consonant. However, as all of the above sources point out in their articles, it is also used as a vowel. The real question is how Y is used in the word “endlessly.” In looking back through my assignment, I used Y several times, in all of the following words: every, eye, eyes, westerly, they, prey, endlessly, and yet.

Let’s group the words into similar uses:

every, westerly, endlessly — I’m inclined to say that Y is used as a vowel in this case, because it has the /eː/ (long E) vowel sound as in me, rather than the /y/ consonant sound as in you. I’ll need to change those words.

eye, eyes — In this case, I’m inclined to judge Y as a consonant because it is between two vowels and the unique /y/ sound certainly influences the pronunciation of the E vowels, even if it is not fully formed in these words. It also causes a slight obstruction in breath, which is the hallmark of a consonant. It also acts like a diphthong (combination of two vowel sounds), but my gut says it’s being used as a consonant.

they, prey — Again, Y affects the pronunciation of the vowels, and causes a slight closing of the mouth and obstruction of breath. Like in eye above, it also has properties of a diphthong, but I think the use is more consonant-like in nature.

yet — This case is more cut and dried. Y clearly makes the unique /y/ sound in this word, so it’s definitely acting as a consonant.

I had better start revising. Based upon this analysis, I only have a few words to change, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find replacement words with only E vowels without changing the meaning of the sentences, and in a short-short, word choice is everything.

I’ll post the story in this blog after class on Wednesday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *