Why Y Deserves Better

Since the inception of the English language, and the languages leading up to it, one letter’s identity has remained constant. Y has always been considered, at least partially, a vowel. In addition to this, we’ve all heard the chants, the songs, and the nursery rhymes that perpetuate the same basic ideology that there are 5 vowels in the English language: A, E, I, O, and U. But there’s one letter, which is only ever dragged out of the shadows and into the light when it’s convenient. The letter Y is no less a vowel than any of the “true” or “just” vowels perpetuated by North American exclusionary culture. Our desire to put every letter into a box that prioritizes some over others is immensely damaging; it contributes not only to Y erasure, but also the erasure of multiple other letters. Society has a long way to go in terms of destroying the concepts surrounding the arbitrary identification of the letters in the alphabet. For instance, why is Y only sometimes a vowel? The answer to this question is quite simple. Y might as well always, consistently, be a vowel when evaluated by the rules currently established and simultaneously ignored in the English language.

One must first clarify what could be defined as a vowel, and what could be defined as a consonant. What is the true, linguistic difference? How does that aid in our understanding of the categorization of letters? A vowel is defined as a sound made with an open configuration of the vocal tract, with minimal to no structure, and lacks constricted sound or projection. Conversely (for all intents and purposes), a consonant is defined as a basic speech sound in which the breath is at least partly obstructed with a complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. The shape and openness of the vocal tract appear to be a consistently important part of what makes a vowel a vowel and a consonant a consonant, and in that way, it is also the primary factor in how one differentiates between the two. 

The letters that must be evaluated, then, are those that don’t conform to this five-letter standard. The frequent deviation from this standard underscores the arbitrary nature of such rules used to exclude the letter Y from being considered a vowel at any given point. One of the arguments provided for Y being considered a consonant is the use of Y with a constrictive “consonant” sound, such as in the word “yesterday” or “yellow.” While somewhat reasonable in theory, compared to other vowels this concept is inherently flawed in practice. This constrictive “consonant” sound is present in the most prevalent vowel in the English language, E. The letter E, in reference to a hard “ee” sound begins with a sharp, percussive movement of constricted air, such as in the word “even” or “eel,” both of which employ a hard onset, accompanied by a glottal stop in order to properly produce the sound. This relates directly to the denotative and connotative definitions associated with consonants in the English language. Y is not the only exception to these rules in any capacity. On the other end of the spectrum, there are multiple letters present in the English language in which their classification hardly ever conforms to their actual uses. For example, the letter “H,” exclusively considered a consonant in English, conforms to almost none of the requirements for consonants and conforms much more closely to the attributes associated with vowels. “H” is scarcely mentioned in this debate, however, because its patterns are more closely and consistently aligned with the patterns of more clearly expressed consonants. Other letters emulate this sense of ambiguity relating to the expression of certain syllables. The letter “W” is almost as interchangeable in terms of function as “Y,” used with a connotative consonant sound at the beginning of words such as “welcome,” while also used with a vowel sound such as the word, “know,” with the W serving as a diphthong in the latter.

The definition of a vowel in a concrete sense is often defended as a tool for children to use to understand the difference between a vowel and a consonant, that it will help them to better understand language and word structure. While this may be true, I am of the belief that teaching functionality would serve children far better than a set of inconsistent rules that hold no real merit as you learn more about language. No one calls to question these motives, simply because they were taught young enough not to ponder the idea that there could be a better way