ASK DOCTOR DOROTHY PASTENSE FULLSTOP:

Answer me this once and for all. Is the letter 'Y' a vowel or a consonant?

Actually, the answer to this question is not that straight forward.

In the English language, often the letter 'y' is considered to be a consonant. This fact is made more convenient due to UK TV's Channel 4's words and numbers gameshow Countdown. In this show, contestants are asked to choose letters but by only asking for vowels and consonants. In this show, the letter Y is classed as a consonant.

But why is this? Well, to answer the question, we perhaps need to remind ourselves what are vowels and what are consonants.

In communication, speech - that is, the act of making or uttering sounds - is usually more important than writing. According to the Collins Cobuild Dictionary, a vowel is 'a sound such as those sounds represented in writing by the letters 'a', 'e' 'i', 'o' and 'u', which you pronounce with your mouth open, allowing the air to flow through it.' A consonant 'is a sound such as 'p', 'f', 'n', or 't' which you pronounce by stopping the air flowing freely through your mouth.'

By those definitions, the letter Y could actually fit into both these definitions as the focus is on the sound and not the spelling. In words such as rhythm, hymn, hysterics, cycle, mystery and physical, the letter 'y' is clearly doing the job of a vowel sound. But in words such as yellow, courtyard, young and beyond, it is clearly being used to make a consonant sound.

In the English language, the letter Y is probably used far more to make vowel sounds than consonant sounds. But often the letter could be exchanged with i as it makes no change as to how the word is pronounced: dye or die, for example. (It isn't always the case: ski and sky are pronounced differently.)

So the only logical reason for the letter Y to be considered more of a consonant is the fact the letter is often used to make vowel sounds that other vowel letters could do instead, while at the start of words the sound the letter Y makes - a consonant sound - is unique to that letter.

Could you respell any of these words using any other letters besides Y? year, yolk, yonder, yobbism, yell, yeoman?

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