I remember learning as a child the song that goes something like “a-e-i-o-u-and sometimes y.” I’d taken my elementary teacher’s word for it that every single one of those were a vowel, and had never really thought about the difference between vowels and consonants. I figured, as long as I can spell words correctly, who cares? For years, I’ve taken great interest in the English language, but neglected to examine some of its finer points until a writer friend of mine asked the question, “Why is it only sometimes Y?” I tried to answer, but found that even though I felt I knew why deep down, I could not piece together a complete response.
I embarked on a journey to get some answers, and made a surprising discovery along the way. Before we get down and dirty with the consonant that is even more mind boggling than “sometimes y,” let’s take a look at why the 25th letter of the alphabet swings both ways.
First off, the difference between consonants and and vowels is worth knowing, especially if you are a poet or a singer. According to Oxford, a vowel is “a speech sound which is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction…”, while a consonant is “a basic speech sound in which the breath is at least partly obstructed.”
That being said, Y is easy to recognize in consonant form, such as in the word “yellow” or “barnyard.” Sometimes, however, the letter becomes part of this super creepy thing called a dipthong. A dipthong is is a pair of vowels that, when combined, create a new sound. Some good examples of these kinds of pairs are “ai” and “au.” When Y is next to another vowel, it can actually adopt vowel qualities. This concept is a lot easier to imagine if you play around with the pronunciation of each letter enough.
As it turns out, language has a sort of mathematical quality that can make another consonant a vowel by the same logic. The letter W (yep, you read correctly) can also become a “semi-vowel” when part of a dipthong. The concept of this one is a little bit harder to grasp than Y, but it is technically possible. Grammar Girl tells us that in words such as “claw” and “few,” the letter W becomes a vowel. She even goes on to say that W can stand alone as a vowel, such as in the word “cwm.”
Whether you believe this or not, it’s logically sound. Though I’ll admit, trying to accept “W” as a vowel feels like a cheese grater is moving across my brain. Most of my friends and family seem to feel the same way. However, my grandfather said he was taught this concept as a child and it was no surprise to him. It seems odd that elementary school teachers would leave “W” out of the picture. But really, how do you describe a dipthong to first-grader?
Personally, I think I’ll just have to keep making do with “a-e-i-o-u-and sometimes y.”