So what letters are vowels, again?

Yes, it’s time for everyone’s favorite show: Is TimeWinder Insane?

In kindergarten, or thereabouts, I recall being told what the vowels were:

“A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y and W.”


Due to the pitying looks I’ve received from various people over the years when I include “w” on that list, I had gradually begun to realize that I must have been mistaken, especially because you don’t encounter W as a vowel. Even though it’s pronounced “double U.” Even though I vaguely remember something about it being very rare, almost exclusively limited to words that used to be Gaelic or Welsh. I had made peace with W not being a vowel. Ever.

Then, a day or two ago, I stumbed across a thread here about uncommon words, including…“cwm.” Which several dictionaries now confirm is a legitimate English word (albeit borrowed from a Welsh one of similar, but less specific, meaning.) It’s even pronounced more or less like you’d pronounce “cuum” – if you replaced the w with a double u.

So…insanity, or did I just have a very, very, good kindergarten teacher? Any other words that use “w” as a vowel? Do we consider “cwm” to be an abberation because of it’s foreign origin?

More importantly: did anyone, ANYONE, else learn their vowels this way?

Nope… but I noticed long ago that the word vacuum had a double u in it. And wondered if someone had made the joke “How did the blonde spell vacuum?”

You were taught correctly.

In “yes,” Y is a consonant. In “day,” Y is a vowel.

In “was,” W is a consonant. In “now,” W is a vowel.

If it makes you fell any better, my mom has some record from the 50s or 60s of a concert in which there is child participation, and at one point the singer asks the children what the vowels are; their answer: “A! E! I! O! U!” Singer: “…and also?” children: “Y and W!” and as a kid in the 80’s that made absolutely no sense to me, but the kids shouted in one voice so they were either coached or it was common to each W as a ‘sometimes’ vowel a few decades ago. Maybe the w as a vowel has fallen out of fashion as far as teaching it goes, but I can totally see what Gary T is saying, ‘w’ does act like a vowel in some sounds, usually paired with another vowel (and I had never seen it that way before, thanks Gary).

Vowels aren’t letters, they are sounds; that’s the problem; vowel sounds are those that you can make without interrupting the stream of air through your larynx and mouth.

Being a naturally curious person, I just went into the other room and proved this. I’m scared to think what anyone that might have overheard me making those noises might think. :smack: :smiley:

For this reason, I think the status of ‘y’ in ‘yes’ as a consonant is debatable (posssibly depending on your regional accent. Some people pronounce ‘Yes’ more like ‘ee-ess’.

So I suck bad at phonetics, because I find it really dull, but wouldn’t “now” /naw/ actually be a semivowel?

Dunno; I’m not a particularly cunning linguist myself, but although it sounds a bit like ‘na-oo’, the ‘w’ in ‘now’ does use the lips a fair bit and so it might not be a pure vowel.

I remember thinking I’d made a great discovery when I realized that “W” is actually a vowel (or at least a semivowel, or hemidemisemivowel), but my father informed me that he was taught that it was “sometimes” a vowel. By the time I went to school (started kindergarten 1970 in NYC), it was just a standard issue consonant.

I’ve always seen the vowel sound in “now”–at least in American English–analyzed as the diphthong [au]. (Well, not exactly; the u is actually a little upside-down omega-looking thing that symbolizes the vowel sound in “good”, but you get the idea.)

Whether or not this is correct for everybody is anybody’s guess.

(/j/ and /w/ can be called: glides, semivowels, vocoids. And possibly other things as well.)

But would they be silent vowels?

To repeat: NO letters are vowels. Only sounds can be vowels.

You are indicating two different pronunciations, [iEs] and [jEs]. In the first case, “ye” is expressed as a diphthong (two vowels) and it is distinguishable from what is normally considered the “y” sound [j] in English.

Linguists generally refer to the “y” and “w” sounds – [j] and [w] – as “semi-vowels” or “glides.” They may be classified with the American English [r] sound as well.

No, they would not be. In both cases, the “ay” and “ow” indicate diphthongs or double vowels, not pure vowels. The English “ay” sound is usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as the diphthong [eI] (e, small capital I (or lowercase iota in old IPA)). The “ow” sound is written as the diphthong [aU] (a, turned small capital omega (or closed lowercase omega in old IPA)). There is no [w] sound at the end of the “ow” diphthong.

In the generic American accent, these are the most common vowels –

Pure vowels–

– Front vowels

---- * as in “feet” or “meet”
---- * (small capital I or lowercase iota or dotless lowercase I) as in “fit” or “mitt”
---- [E] (epsilon) as in “Fett” or “met”
---- [&] (a-e ligature) as in “fat” or “mat”

– Back vowels

---- as in “moot”
---- (turned small capital omega or closed lowercase omega) as in “foot”
---- [O] (turned lowercase C (open lowercase O)) as in “fought”
---- [V] (turned lowercase V) as in “mutt”
---- [A] (script lowercase A) as in “bother”

– Central vowels

---- [@] (schwa (turned lowercase E))
---- [@r] schwa hook (R-coloured schwa)

Diphthongs and glides

---- [eI] (e, small capital I) as in “fate” or “mate”
---- [aI] (a, small capital I) as in “fight” or “might”
---- [oU] (o, turned small capital omega) as in “moat”
---- [jU] (j, turned small capital omega) as in “mute”

A catch-all class of sounds called approximants encompasses sounds with (slightly) smaller oral apertures than vowels, but larger apertures than consonants: [l], [r] (American), [w], [y], the initial sound of French huit, etc.).

Mangetout is correct to note that English orthographical conventions do not precisely reflect English pronunciation. I’d like to fine-tune his definition of a vowel by noting that many consonants, also, do not interrupt airflow – these would be the fricative consonants such as [f], [s], [v], [z]. IMHO, it’s more helpful to say that vowel sounds have an unobstructed airflow – an airflow that is neither interrupted (cf. consonants like [p], [t], **, [k]) nor obstructed (cf. the fricative consonants above).

All that said, the continuum between consonant and vowel is one huge gray area. Whether to treat a given sound as a vowel, consonant, or something in between has a lot to do with the phonetic traits of the language being studied.

Take English for example. Let’s use the word “swim”. The isolated utterance “swim”, out of the phonetic context of English, can accurately be analyzed as the sounds [s][“long” u][“short” i][m] in sequence.

However, it’s important to know that there are labguage-dependent alternative analyses that are also considered phonetically accurate. Linguists don’t argue about whether the letter W in “swim” represents a true vowel or a true consonant. It’s generally conceded that the sound represented has aspects of both a vowel and a consonant – it’s firmly in the gray area that approximants fall into.

So, in the case of the word “swim”, just what is that W representing? It’s an approximant taking on the role of a consonant. Why? The rules of English phonetics guide us here. The most prominent sonic peak in the word “swim” occurs on the *. The [s], [w], and [m] would lie in the “sonic valley” of the utterance. When the word “swim” is stressed in a phrase, the vowel sound * carries the stress, not the [s], [w], or [m].

So when does the approximant [w] take on the role of a vowel in English? When it’s the second element of a diphthong (a single vocalic peak in which the tongue position moves from one vowel “target position” to another). In a word like “cow”, for instance, the vocalic peak’s tongue position starts off as [a] (= “a” as in French basse) then moves towards the position of [“long” u] (though not quite making it there). In English orthography, the W in “cow” represents the second target position of the diphthong [au].

Going by that logic, is GH a vowel in “night”?

I dispute this to an extent. The two utterances are only distinguishable if the first element of the diphthong [iE] is of sufficient length. Without some duration (and I realize we’re dealing in fractions of milliseconds here), the first element of [iE] will not be stable enough to form a sound distinct from [je].

Darned gray areas.

No, GH represents a sound absent from English for many centuries – the velar fricative represented by CH in German Nacht.

I’m aware of how the word used to be pronounced. But, the “GH” in night, right, might, etc now serves the purpose of making the I long (I’m sorry. I have no idea what the proper linguistic terms are here).

While I understand the point you’re making, every dictionary I can find gives two definitions for “vowel” - the sound, and the letters. Certainly if you asked random people who came through the American public school system, I doubt that more than a small percentage would give you the “sounds” definition rather than the “list of letters” definition.

Indeed, I’m considered a language nitpicker, and even I would call the letters “vowels” and the sounds “vowel sounds.” I will concede that I’d be wrong in the latter case, mind you, but I don’t think I’d be in the minority.

Still, the interesting question to me is the pedagogical one: were the cannonical “vowel letters” taught differently in the past or regionally? The responses here seem to indicate that they were; I’m in my late thirties, and went to elementary school in the midwest. But even others in similar circumstances seem to suppress the traumatic “w vowel” memory.