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Why Y?

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

The Twenty-fifth Letter Has Its Own Uniqueness

By Michael Heath /

All schoolchildren learn that the vowels in the alphabet are a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. Many believe that the “sometimes” is when a word needs a vowel when no other exists. That can be true but is not the whole story.

Consonants Versus Vowels

What constitutes a letter, vowel, or a consonant depends on in its speech sound. Vowel sounds come from the throat and do not require mouth manipulation. Consonant sounds, on the other hand, are made when the mouth is used for the transmission. Think of the way the sound of the letter a floats from the back of the mouth while the sound of p is made by momentarily restricting the airflow before unlocking pursed lips. Another way of contrasting the two is that vowels have soft, gentle sounds while consonant soundings have a harder characteristic.

When Y Is a Vowel

There are three ways that the letter y may be used as a vowel.

  • When no other vowel is used in a word: cry, my, gym.

  • In the middle of a syllable: system, thyme, vinyl.

  • At the end of a syllable: dandy, party, imply.

Here again, the sound makes a letter a consonant or vowel. Notice the short, easy sound that comes from the middle of gym and thyme. Then there is that “eee”sound at the end of dandy and “aye” sound at the end of imply.

Two vowels combined to create a sound is known as a diphthong. When y is used this way (e.g., joy, pray, donkey) it is considered a vowel.

When Y Is a Consonant

The letter y is considered a consonant when it starts a word or is at the beginning of a syllable. The sound is worked slightly by the mouth allowing it to express somewhat like a vowel but enough to classify as a consonant. Some examples are yellow, yes, foyer and beyond.

Y as a Word Changer

It is common for the letter y to be used as a suffix to create a new word. This word-ending device makes the adjective quick into the adverb quickly. The additional letter turns the noun dirt into the adjective dirty.

Multiple Jobs for One Letter

The roles that y plays in the English language make it different from every other letter. It serves as a consonant, vowel, and suffix. Does that make it the most important of the ABCs? Maybe not. But these are still reasons why we should be thankful for the letter y.

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