Query: Is "w" a Vowel?

Lynne Murphy lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Fri Apr 28 17:48:30 UTC 2000

FROMADDRESS:    karen_wyatt at beverlycorp.com
FIRSTNAME:      Karen
LASTNAME:       Wyatt
NOTES:  My husband and I have gotten into a discussion about vowels. He
said that he was taught that a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y and w. I on
the other hand was taught the same except for the w part. What letters
are considered to be vowels all the time and some of the time??

It's not the answers that are wrong, it's the question, really.  A vowel
is a type of sound.  But a letter is not a sound--it's something that
represents a sound.  Usually, A, E, I, O and U represent sounds that are
vowels.  But sometimes W and Y represent sounds that are vowels and
sometimes they represent sounds that are consonants.

Part of the reason for this is that the sounds that those letters
usually represent  (the 'w' in 'with' and the 'y' in 'yellow') are
"semivowels" or "glides."  They are consonants that are very similar to
vowels, in that you shape the vocal tract for y and w almost like you
shape it for 'ee' and 'u', and you express the sounds in similar

But a bigger part of the reason for the "sometimes" bit is that English
spelling is the product of several centuries' weirdnesses.  The letters
'y' and 'w', when standing for vowels stand for the same vowels as other
letters do.  For example the 'y' in my name (Lynne) represents the same
sound as the 'i' in "bin".  So 'y' may represent a vowel, but it doesn't
represent a vowel that is uniquely the 'y' vowel.

It's harder to find examples of 'w' representing a vowel on its own, but
one example is 'cwm' (pronounced like 'koom, which is a borrowing from
Welsh, referring to a kind of valley).  (It's a great Scrabble word.)  I
think most teachers don't know the word 'cwm' and instead teach
"sometimes w" on the logic that 'w' (like the other vowel-representing
letters) can be used in vowel digraphs (combinations of letters
representing vowels), like 'aw' and 'ow'.  Now, on this logic, we should
say "A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y, W, and R" (since 'r' is essentially
vowelly after other vowels, like in "barn").

That there are 5 vowels (and sometimes 6 or 7) is one of the first
things that linguistics students get 'untaught'.  It's one of those
things that teachers have said forever, but which confuses matters more
than it elucidates them.  If you want to know how many vowels there
really are in English, spelling is a poor guide.  If you look at your
dictionary's pronunciation guide, it'll show that the number of
vowel-letters we have to spell with is far smaller than the number of
vowels that we have to spell.  My American Heritage Dictionary
distinguishes 19 vowel sounds--but your dialect may vary.

Everything I've said above is about English alone--just because French
and English use the same alphabet doesn't mean that they have the same
vowels--more proof that counting "vowels" by counting letters that
represent vowels is just not a useful thing to try to do.

I hope that helps some.
Lynne M.

Dr M Lynne Murphy
Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

phone +44-(0)1273-678844
fax   +44-(0)1273-671320

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