vowels and semi-vowels

Discussion in 'English Only' started by epistolario, Dec 4, 2007.

  1. epistolario

    epistolario Senior Member

    Earlier, in my French class, my teacher discussed phonetics and we discussed vowels. My teacher said that aside from a, e, i, o, u, you also consider y as a vowel in French. We tried to compare English and French and I shared with them what I have learned in my elementary classes (my books were written by Americans). I told them that w and y are sometimes considered as vowels in English, but they do not know that. I have only one native English speaking classmate from Canada who agreed, but he is not aware that w is also considered a semi-vowel.

    There are words that only have y: rhythm, fry, gry, try, fly, etc.

    I told them that there is at least one word that only has w that serves as a vowel: cwm


    Is this correct? It seems that this is not generally taught in schools.
  2. Lexiphile Senior Member

    England English
    When I was in school in the US, we also learned about Y and W. Examples of W as a vowel would be cow, law, bow and so on.
    A semi-vowel is new to me, but maybe that is the new name for the use in these examples, since the words all end with the wa-wa-wa-sound characteristic of W as a consonant as well as having modified sound on the middle vowel.
  3. tepatria Senior Member

    Onondaga, Ontario
    Canadian English
    I have never heard of w as a vowel. As a teacher I taught children the vowels are a e i o u and sometimes y. The word cwm is from Welsh and spelling in Welsh is very different.
  4. Phil-Olly Senior Member

    Scotland, English
    I recall when my friend's little sister was learning the alphabet, and spoke the letters phonetically, she insisted that 'w' was 'oo'. When challenged, she explained that it stood for "oo - indow" and "oo-allpaper". Maybe that's why we call it 'double-u'

    By the same token you could think of 'y' as 'ee'. Which is why, if you say ELO quickly, it comes out as "yellow".

    Perhaps these 'consonants' were originally vowels?
  5. Rana_pipiens

    Rana_pipiens Senior Member

    Salt Lake City, Utah
    USA / English
    Warning: oversimplified. And I certainly wasn't taught any of it in school ....

    A semivowel (also called a glide) is when you change from one vowel to another (1) in the same syllable, (2) without a consonent between, or (3) without a stop in the airflow -- depending on which authority you consult. A diphthong is the combination of a vowel and semivowel.

    Most sources say there are two semivowels in English, W and Y (sometimes called J instead). Some linguists also regard R, L, or H as semivowels. English spelling being what it is, sometimes a so-called vowel in a word (as spelled) is actually a semivowel (as pronounced).

    The semivowel W represents the vowel sound "oo" when it occurs next to another vowel:
    - water (oo, short O),
    - cow or mouse (short A, oo).

    The semivowel Y is the vowel sound "ee":
    - yes (long E, short E),
    - sky or high (short O, long E),
    - onion (long E, short U),
    - pinjata (long E, short O).
    - mute (long E, oo)
  6. mplsray Senior Member

    There are two levels of analysis involved here.

    First, there is the way vowel sounds and letters were traditionally treated in American elementary education. In this tradition, it was said that the vowels are "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y."

    There is presumably a historical reason why vowels came to be defined as such. The logic does not seem to be consistent, however. In this system, a "vowel" included diphthongs, so that the "long 'a'" and "long 'o'" are thought of as vowels rather than diphthongs. Given that, how should the "ou" of "house" and the "ow" of "howl" be treated? By the rule given above, presumably "house" would be considered to have one "vowel sound" and two letters which are vowels, "o" and "u." But why not then consider "howl" to have the same? But instead, "howl" is considered to have "o" as a vowel and "w" as a consonant.

    The second level of analysis is that of phoneticians and other people professionally involved (at a high level) with pronunciation (lexicographers, for example). Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines "semiconsonant" as "semivowel," and under the entry for the latter, gives, in the sense relevant to our discussion, "2 : one of the glides \y\, \w\, \r\ 3 : a letter representing one of these sounds."

    If you go to the entry for "glide," after defining it, it gives links to "off-glide" and "on-glide." An "off-glide" is like "ey" in "hey," while and "on-glide" is like "ye" in "yet."

    I expect most English speakers think of vowels in the sense of "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y" and don't remember what they (later) learned in school about diphthongs. "Cwm" has been naturalized into English, so that I would say that "w" is a vowel letter in English, but I expect most people--including Scrabble players!--consider "cwm" to be a "word with no vowels." I think there would be little point in referring to it when teaching English unless a student happened to ask a question about it.
  7. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    EDIT: I started typing this before mplsray's post, so it may seem a little out of place, but ...

    Actually "semivowel" describes a speech sound or a phoneme, but I think ffrancis's question is about vowel letters.

    The letters y and w sometimes play the role of vowels in English phonics (not the same as phonetics), which is used to explain the inexact correspondence between letters and sounds to native English speakers learning to read.

    When I was very young, I was taught the most common sounds of the letters, including a, e, i, o, and u as in bat, bet, bit, bot, and but. Of course we didn't have the word bot yet, but we had little reading books with lots of one-syllable words illustrating these sounds for these letters. These were called the "short" vowel sounds, as opposed to the "long" vowels, which "say their own names".

    We learned a rule "Two vowels together in a word - the first is long and the second is silent." Not a hard and fast rule, but it covers a lot of real words and is rememberable. When my son was taught phonics, the same rule was given as "When two vowels go walkin', the first one does the talkin'."

    I mention this rule because it is an example of a rule in which it helps to consider y to be a vowel, since ay and ey most often sound as long a and e, respectively, just like ai and ea - because two vowels "go walkin'". And ow quite often sounds like long o. For example, tow sounds just like toe.

    Long story short, it helps to consider both y and w to be vowels (sometimes) because they have the same properties as i and u in digraphs (whenever two vowels make one sound, possibly unlike either vowel alone): ay = ai (day, daisy), aw = au (caw, cause), ow = ou (how, house), etc. There are hundreds of examples. When I and my brothers learned to read, the vowels were "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w".

    Speaking of sounds, though, both French and English have a lot more than 5-7 vowel sounds. We have short, long, r-colored, etc. French has open, close, front-rounded, nasal, etc. Both languages have semivowel and semiconsonant sounds.

    Both French has 5 or 6 vowel letters, and we have 5-7. Both languages use silent letters, digraphs, and ambiguous spelling.
  8. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Perhaps, given the very real vagaries of English spelling, we would do better not even to attempt to pigeonhole the letters of English so precisely:
    a ~ almost always represents some kind of vowel
    b ~ almost always represents /b/, but sometimes nothing at all [lamb]
    c ~ produces various consonantal sounds
    w ~ a sort of vowelly-consonanty hybrid
    y ~ sometimes a vowel, sometimes a consonant ...
  9. Lexiphile Senior Member

    England English
    Welcome back Ewie -- for a while there I thought we had lost you for good.

    I support your argument about not pigeonholing, but for a different reason. It's not the spelling in English that is so vague, it's the pronunciation. Other languages, like German and Greek, are pronounced (with only very minor exceptions) exactly as they are spelled (or do you prefer spellt?). For each letter or letter combination there is a rule, and the rule is honoured. In English, no way!! (even more vernacular....)
  10. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    ;)Thanks, Lexi ~ I am interested in this, but it's giving me fair gyp.
    Hmm, yes, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: is our spelling erratic vis-à-vis our pronunciation, or vice versa? I'd always go for the former, since the spoken language 'came/comes first', but I suppose you pays your money and takes your choice.
    I suppose what I'm ultimately trying to say is this: English spelling is so bizarre that it's a bit pointless trying to categorize individual letters into 'this is a vowel' or 'this is a consonant'.

    K ~ simple, it's a consonant. Oh yeah? What is it in knowledge? It's a 'silent consonant'. What's a 'silent consonant'? It's a consonant you don't pronounce. Oh yeah? ~ isn't that called 'nothing'?
  11. Lexiphile Senior Member

    England English
    Absolutely!! The pronunciation came first. But other languages then construct rules and adjust the spelling to fit. Consider, in particular, the recent Rechtschreibreform in Germany, through which many words have become almost unrecognisable. And there is a Book, the Duden, which prescribes exactly how the language is to be used. In English, we don't have that. Even the OED never claimed to be prescriptive -- in fact, one of the original stipulations of the Philological Society was that the planned Dictionary must not be prescriptive. And every editor since Herbert Coleridge has followed that dictum.

    It's probably caled a sinesonant. :D
  12. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Like it, like it. Perhaps we could call y a hermaphrograph ...:eek:
  13. Ynez Senior Member

    I am not totally sure because it's long ago I studied phonetics, but here is my idea.

    We first need to forget about spelling and think only about pronounciation. The semivowels (or semiconsonants) in English are what in Phonetics is represented as w and j.

    Most (if not all) of the words starting with the letter w are pronounced with the phonetic symbol w:

    ['wiski] = whisky
    ['wumen] = woman

    but the word two in phonetics is [tu:], and the words one and once start in phonetics with the semivowel w.

    Many (if not all) words starting with the letter y are pronounced with the phonetic semivowel symbol j:

    ['jelou] = yellow
    but you pronounce the same semivowel in other words with no y:

    ['stju:dent] = student

    [ju:z] = use

    An important feature is that there will always be a vowel after them. Simplifying, w is like a strong u, and j is like a strong i.

    Note: I tried to copied the phonetic symbols from the WRD, but some symbols appeared as ?, so I typed similar normal letters (in italics).
  14. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    English "w" and "y" really don't need to be in different categories.

    Both can be used as second letters in vowel digraphs as well as for consonant sounds and glides.

    The only distinctions in usage between "y" and "w" are:

    1. Syllables with "y" as the only vowel letter are very common, but only "cwm" (apparently) uses "w" as the only vowel letter in a syllable.

    2 (actually a consequence of 1). Many words ending in "y" have inflected forms ending in "ies" or "ied", but words ending in "w" keep the "w" in all their forms. (Note: words ending in a vowel + "y" keep the "y" - except "monies".)
    Actually the sequence is complicated, for both English and French.

    ..., Anglo-Saxon pronunciation, then Anglo-Saxon writing in a modified Latin alphabet, then Anglo-French and Old English attempting to use the same alphabet, then Middle English, in which spelling was an art, not a science, Modern English (ditto), and finally the age of dictionaries and "correct" types of English spelling - American, British, Canadian, Australian, etc.

    ..., Latin pronunciation, then Latin writing, then attempts to write Vulgar Latin "correctly" (assuming it was Latin), then early Galloromance, then French with Latin letters and no particular "correct" spelling, and finally nationwide French "correct" spelling.
  15. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    Another Country
    English English
    Of course, you're right, Forero. (My version was lazy shorthand). There even exist in English ~ not sure about French ~ certain words in which spelling has affected pronunciation. Sadly, I can't think of a single example off-hand.
  16. eselpee New Member

    In English, consonants are obstructed (closed) sounds that are voiced or unvoiced. Our articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, velum, and glottis) form obstructions of some sort to the air stream. The obstructions can be stops, fricatives, affricates, nasals, liquids, or glides. They can also be classified according to place (bilabial, palatal, laryngeal, etc.). For example, /b/ is a bilabial stop.

    The graphemes “y” and “w” can be used to represent glides. Feel your tongue glide with “y” in “yes” and your lips glide with “w” in “what”)

    Vowels are voiced unobstructed (open) sounds. They are classified by jaw position (high “it” or low “ape”) and the shape of the lips (back “oops” or front “each”). The schwa is the mid-most vowel, and can be used to produce any unstressed vowel regardless of spelling.

    Vowels can be mono-positional as in the word “feet”, in which the position of the jaw is stable. They can also be diphthongs, in which the jaw/lips glide from one position to another as in the word “boy”. They can also be tense (what we call long vowels: “me”) or lax (short vowels: “met”). The letter “u” actually has two tense sounds, one a mono-positional and the other a diphthong, demonstrated in the words “flute” and “music”. There are also r-controlled vowels (shirt, word, nerd, fur are various spellings for /er/).

    The grapheme “y” can be used to represent a tense high back vowel in the word “happy” or the lax central high vowel in the word myth. The “w’ can represent the diphthongs in the vowel digraphs heard in “cow” and “snow” or the monopositional vowel in "paw".

    The letter “a” can have at least seven sounds in English ("at" "ate" "father" "ball" "are" "ward" "near"). Vowels are the basis of accents and dialects (those of us with southernish dialects LOVE our diphthongs!). Those five + two graphemes get a lot of mileage in English phonics!

    Its a wonder any of the English speakers are literate!!

    The only reliable graphemes in English are: d, f, j, l, m, n, p, t, v, z

    They each are associated with only one phoneme and consistently represent that sound (they are not silent)

    I think we have several backgrounds here, but speaking from the lens of a speech language pathologist......;)

    y & w are "glides" (when they are not vowels, that is)
    the tongue or lips glide through the phoneme.


    r & l are "liquids":
    the tongue holds a position while the phonation flows around them like a river flows around a boulder

    When kids sub 'y for r' or 'w for l' it’s called, "gliding liquids", which is developmentally acceptable until about the end of first-grade.

    Great summary!! But now I see lots of text-spell, even from my generation. NPR presented a piece about how high school teachers are inundated by it. It is more insidious than formal attempts to corral English spelling.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2010
  17. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Actually, it can be argued that there is no letter of the alphabet that in English is never silent:

    Wednesday has a silent d.
    Halfpenny has silent l and silent f.
    Rijsttafel has a silent j.
    Mnemonic has a silent m.
    Column and autumn have silent n.
    Pneumonia and ptomaine have silent p.
    Castle has silent t.
    "Could have done" and "five dollars" are often pronounced with no v sound.
    Rendezvous has silent z.

    And I would venture to say that no letter in English retains the same sound in all circumstances. For example, physics does not have a p sound, the d in "used to" sounds like a t, and the v in "have to" sounds like an f.
  18. eselpee New Member

    When you're right, you're right - I stand corrected :)

    I had to look Rijsttafel up - new word for me!
  19. Hermione Golightly

    Hermione Golightly Senior Member

    British English
    You need to tell the class that cwm is not an English word. It is Welsh, a Celtic language spoken in Wales.

    I looked down a list of Welsh place names, with the English meanings. I only knew one of them, glyn, and that's just because somebody asked a question here the other day, about the related word 'glen' which had also been misleadingly described as mainly British usage, true, except it is Scottish.

    I had never heard of 'w' being considered a vowel anywhere by anybody and can't see why that would be taught in schools. English grammar is barely taught either because, dare I say it here, compared with other European languages, there isn't any.

  20. eselpee New Member

    I am working on a project to organize vowel digraphs and r-controlled vowels so I can present them to students in a reasonable way - which is how I found you all.

    I visited an IPA site and found 22 vowel sounds in English (spelled with only 7 graphemes).

    I cannot post the link b/c I only allowed to post URLs to other sites after I have made 30 posts or more, but I am sure any of you could find it if interested...
  21. mplsray Senior Member

    Cwm is a fully naturalized English word, used as a technical term, according the Oxford English Dictionary, in geology and physical geography.

    Addition: Another word adopted into English from Welsh which unambiguously uses w as a vowel is crwth, a type of musical instrument. Many online general English dictionaries which I know to have printed versions show it as being naturalized. (I learned of the word via the Word Detective, Evan Morris.)
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2010

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