Vowels and letters (W as a vowel)


W as a “vowel”

Any linguist will tell you that the “vowels” of English are not A, E, I, O, U, Y, and W. Those are letters (vowel letters, perhaps). Vowels are sounds we make with the mouth and throat. W is no more a vowel than A is. Letters don’t make sounds, people do. (Go ahead, listen to a newspaper or book.) Letters are written symbols we use to represent the sounds of spoken language. Yes, common usage of the word “vowel” more often refers to a letter, and that usage has led to this denotation in the dictionary. Nevertheless, this has only muddled popular notions of English phonetics, and of language itself.

In fact, the example(s) of OW as in how, and OU as in house are both the same vowel. (Just say the worlds out loud, and you’ll notice it’s the same vowel sound.) The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) records this sound like this: /au/. The complete words in the examples: /hau/ and /haus/ respectively. The only difference between the two words is that the second word has a final consonant.

Yes, the sound in question is a dipthong, but in English (as opposed to, say, Spanish), dipthongs are so closely blended that they constitute a single, distinct vowel sound. The words how and house both have just one, single vowel.

English has at least 21 vowels–more, depending on how you define things such as “r-coloring”–compare the vowels (the sounds) in the words he and her. (Notice that her is not pronounced like here.)

So to say that a letter–or a combination of letters–“sounds” a particiular way, is just inadequate, and distorts one’s understanding of language. Take, for example, the letters OU. Notice how many different vowels they represent:


Each word has a single, distinct, and different vowel. To say “the OU sound” is inadequate–which OU sound? Just as it is to say “the A sound”–which? The one in hat or hate? And to say “long A” or “short A” is also inadequate, because what about father?

This problem is partly the result of using print to describe sounds (which is why they created the IPA, a system of symbols used to record unique language sounds in print). But it’s also a result of people thinking that writing drives speech. Speech is a natural, human trait, while writing is artificial. To be certain, writing has evolved qualities which can’t be attained in speech (e.g., paragraphs, punctuation, etc.). And written languages have been created which have no spoken basis (mathematics, computer programing). But when it comes to vowels and consonants, speech drives the writing, not the other way around.

I think it’s safe to say that when someone says that A, E, I O and U are vowels that they mean - and we all understand it to mean - that they represent vowel sounds. Still I have to disagree with Cecil’s take on this.

The best that you can say about W is that it can be a semivowel, and so can Y. However Y is sometimes a flat out vowel (or for the pedants among us it *represents * a vowel), e.g., *fly * or *by *. W never acts as a true vowel except in those odd Welsh words which Cecil dismisses as anomalous. So if you’re going to give W some sort of status as a vowel based on it’s semivowel functioning, you still need to distinguish if from Y which sometimes acts as a true vowel.

And just to muddy up the waters a bit more this linguist claims that there are other letters that can act as vowels (or at least semivowels):

Technically these are called “syllablic consonants.” They’re “vowels” only in that they represent a sound which follows a (strongly) stressed syllable, and which is pronounced as an additional syllable (kitten, sudden, tunnel). A syllable must have a vowel, yet these consonant sounds don’t seem to have a “true” vowel. Since this is paradoxical, they just say it’s a “syllablic consonant.”

I’d say that it’s more just a question of the phonology of certain ways some people speak English. Because of the way many North Americans pronounce the middle consonants /t/, /d/, and /n/ before the next syllable, that syllable doesn’t seem to have a vowel sound. But coundn’t we just as easily say it’s variation of the schwa sound?

In any case, to call these letters vowels is somewhat pointless, IMHO, because we’re talking about sounds. As I said above, the letters don’t make the sounds, our mouth does. And the orthography even often has a vowel letter before the “syllabic consonant” to represent to the syllable.

(Note the exception in shouldn’t. The second syllable has no “traditional” vowel letter. It’s a good example of where phonics breaks down. Try “sounding out” shouldn’t. According to phonics it should be one syllable. The way native speakers actually learn to read this word is in the opposite direction of phonics. Not from the letters to the sound but from the sound we’ve heard so much to the letters. Hence the cognition of the “syllabic consonant,” or, if you like, that N can be a vowel letter.)

The “AEIOU sometimes W sometimes Y” rule is normally applied to teach some very basic concepts to elementary school students. I don’t think they had in mind semivowels, diphthongs, and syllablic consonants when they came up with it. I’m sure you’re right in everything you’re saying, it’s just that I don’t think it’s entirely germane to the question.

This is a rule meant to help children distinguish consonants from vowels at a very basic level. In that context, what do you think the “sometimes W and sometimes Y” clause means? I believe that it can only mean that Y and W sometimes act as “true vowels” or whatever the proper term is. Examples for Y are easy to come by, but not for W. The only examples are those Welsh words.

In fact most teachers now teach that the vowels are AEIOU and sometimes Y, which is good. The only time I hear the “sometimes W” clause anymore is from really old teachers and when I’ve asked them, they were unable to give me an example of W as a vowel. Even when I was being taught the rule in elementary school, none of my teachers had a clue as to why W was in there.

Yes, I remember being taught only AEIOU and sometimes Y. And if it helps in school, all the better. I have to wonder, though, just exactly how it helped. I can’t really remember. Knowing whether a letter is a consonant or a vowel seems to be good only for its own sake. Perhaps in knowing that every word must have at least one vowel. So if your trying to spell a word, and there’s no vowel, the teacher can say “What’s the vowel? You have to have a vowel in that word.”

I think most of us were taught AEIOU and sometimes Y. I don’t even remember being taught what was meant by “sometimes”. I just dutifully memorized and regurgitated it on queue.

Cecil’s answer is perfectly logical “w” is part of of diphthong so, despite the OP’s quibble, must be a vowel. Why weren’t most of us taught, “Sometimes Y and W” then? Is it because “W” can only be part of a diphthong (except in a few obscure cases) while “Y” can often stand alone?

never mind the vowel problem (which does not exists in most other langauges).

I would rather like to know what:

squdgy fez, blank jimp, crwth vox


By the way, examples in French/German:
bayerische jagdwitze von maxl querkopf
the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
voyez le brick geant que j’examine pres du wharf.

I often ask foreign students of English to read the follow sentence aloud:

The rough, tough, dough-faced ploughman coughed and hiccoughed his way from Slough to Loughborough.

No often that someone nails it first time.

Just goes to show that English isn’t as simple as people like to think :slight_smile:

I even heard of an Australian in London who insisted he had to get to “Looga-barooga” as soon as possible… no-one knew what he was on about until he pointed on a map and it turned out he wanted to get to Loughborough :smack:

While linguists may use strictly the definition you give, the rest of us can legitimately call “A” a vowel. From dictionary.com, definition 2 is “A letter, such as a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y in the English alphabet, that represents a vowel.” My Merriam-Webster dictionary has essentially the same definition 2. Since this is the SDMB, not the SDLMB, saying that “A” is not a vowel is wrong.

Sometimes, when time is hanging heavy on my hands, I try to amuse myself by disassembling words into their component sounds (in my mind). Whenever I take apart the sound that "W " makes in words such as “water”, “web”, “windshield”, “word”, and a host of others, I am faced with the unavoidable fact that it begins with “oo”.

Similarly, the sound formed by “Y” in “yak”, “Yahoo”, “yet”, and “Yumpin’ Yiminey!” always begins with “ee”.

Under the circumstances, I have concluded that “y” and “w” are always vowel letters. The rest of you may continue to label them as consonant letters, until my plans for world domination have been brought to fruition.

By that logic don’t you need to add R to the list of vowels. What’s the difference between *wed * and red other than a alight shift of the tongue?

Not that I’m challenging your wisdom or anything. Indeed, I for one welcome our new linguistic overlords.

Actually, a syllable must have a vocalic peak – a role that can be served by vowels or by syllabic consonants. There’s no paradox involved.

The crux of this matter is that there is no clear-cut boundary between vowel and consonant. Link to a previous discussion about the nature of consonants, vowels, and everything in between.

And another.

Re: pronunciation of the Cantonese surname Ng (from the first link above):

Yes, I apologize, because that is what I meant to say

I have to ask myself: Why would someone do such a thing? If they’re “foreign students,” what is the point?

If you’re trying to make a point to those that TEACH English, then it’s a good exersice.

But to the students/immigrants, what’s the point?

As an illustration of the potential hiccoughs that can be faced when learning English.

When I was learning German I rarely came across words that were pronounced totally differently to the way they were spelled - if you’d seen a similar word there was a reasonable chance that the sounds would be the same.

The German students I was living with were approaching English in a similar manner - ie. if they’d not seen the word “plough” before they would understandably base it on one of the similar words they did know, but depending on whether that word was rough, through or whatever they would pronounce it differently.

Anyway, why does one need an excuse for brain-teasers? It’s a useful workout for the mind - no biggie. :wink:

You have given me food for thought, putative future minion. I thank you.

When the time approaches, keep an eye on your inbox. There may be a ministry I could offer you.

Will it involve torture for those who abuse the word “literally”?

The best English panagram is:


26 letters, and it requires no explanation: Serves Jock right. Any academian who sells out to mass media deserves to have his markmanship suffer.

Okay, I can see that.

Okay. If, after you ask them to read out loud the sentence that they probably won’t pronounce correctly, you explain the orthography involved, and show them on a map where Slough and Loughborough are.

Where are they, BTW?

Anyway, I still wonder why native English speaking school children need to know whether a letter is a “vowel” or a consonant–that is, why grade school teachers are so hung up on it. It seems to me just like how they insist that an essay have five paragraphs–not four, not six.

I think partially because of the use of the words “an” and “a”. As far as I know, “a” is used before a consonant sound (a Cow), “an” is used before a vowel sound (an Otter).

What gets me is how you get “Lester” from “Leicester”? And should we talk about “aluminium”? Those darn Brits! :wink: