When Is "W" a Vowel?
A E I O U and sometimes Y, but also W?
A question that I get now and then is whether W is ever a vowel. At first, I was puzzled by this question, but it turns out that grammar books from the 19th century and earlier sometimes did include W as a vowel. I’m not sure why grammar writers stopped doing it, or when the “A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y” that many of us learned in school became standard, but today we’re going to learn not only when Y, and maybe even W, can be a vowel. Actually, here’s a spoiler: They’re not, and neither are A, E, I, O, and U.
So how can I possibly claim that A, E, I, O, and U are not vowels?
Sounds Versus Letters
The short answer is that vowels (and consonants, too) are the actual sounds we make when we talk, and that A, E, I, O, and U, and all the other letters of the alphabet represent those vowels and consonants. This may seem like a picky distinction, but if you’re not clear on whether you’re talking about orthography or phonetics, things can get confusing. For example, we’re used to thinking of the letter U as a vowel. As a result, countless speakers have needlessly second-guessed themselves wondering whether they should write “a university” or “an university”; “a unicorn” or “an unicorn.”
A lot of confusion could have been avoided if generations of kids had just learned that U represents a vowel in words like “umbrella” and “put,” and that it represents the sequence of the consonant “yuh” and the vowel “oo” in “university” and “unicorn”!
So various letters or combinations of letters are used to represent vowels or consonants, but in and of themselves, letters are neither vowels nor consonants. I’m sorry if that goes against what you learned in school. It goes against what I learned in school, too, but unless you’re playing Scrabble or Wheel of Fortune, it really is more sensible to think about vowels and consonants this way.
When Syllables Begin with Y or W
Now that I’ve given the simple answer, let’s deal with the real question: When does W, and for that matter Y, represent a vowel? If a syllable begins with Y or W, and the next letter represents a vowel, then Y or W almost certainly represents a consonant. In “yo” and “woe,” for example, Y and W represent consonants.
If a syllable begins with Y and the next letter represents a consonant, then the Y represents a vowel. The only examples I can think of are the elements yttrium and ytterbium, and the French name Yves [pronounced “eve”]. I see in the dictionary that there are few more borrowed or archaic words with Y representing a vowel at the beginning of a word, but they’re not worth mentioning here. And there are no syllables beginning with W in which W represents a vowel.
When Y and W Are in the Middle of a Syllable
What about in the middle of a syllable? In words like “rhythm,” Y represents a vowel, specifically the short I sound. However, in a word such as the name “Reynold,” it doesn’t make sense to say that Y represents a vowel. It’s the two-letter combination E-Y that represents a vowel.
As for W, it never occurs in the middle of a syllable, at least in native English words. There is the borrowed Welsh word “cwm,” [pronounced “coom”] spelled C-W-M, which refers to a kind of valley, but I’m only mentioning it because if I don’t, a commenter will. In this word, yes, W represents a vowel. Personally, I think this word is so rare as to be best ignored, but it’s allowed in Scrabble, so who am I to make a fuss?
When Y and W Are at the End of a Syllable
Last, let’s talk about Y and W at the end of a syllable. In one-syllable words such as “by” and “fly,” Y represents the vowel commonly known as long I. As an aside, long I is actually two vowels run together. Say it slowly enough, and you can hear that it consists of “ah” plus “ee.” The phonetic term for two vowels run together this way is diphthong, which sounds like an insult, and has actually been used as an insult by people who don’t know better.
Getting back to Y at the end of a syllable: In longer words such as “sorry” and “friendly,” it represents the vowel of long E (or maybe short I again—speakers vary). In words like “hey” or “day,” we run into complications. On the one hand, you could say that Y represents a vowel, because without it, we’d pronounce the words with different vowels. Instead of “hey,” we’d say “he,” and instead of “day,” we’d say “da.” But by that reasoning, you could also conclude that G and H in “fight” are vowels, too, because without them, the word would be “fit.” That way lies madness. The most sensible thing to say is that the letter combinations of E-Y and A-Y together represent the long A sound in these words.
What about the Y at the ends of words like “boy”? Well, “oy” is another diphthong, consisting of an O-like vowel followed by long E or short I. So you could say that Y represents one of those vowels. On the other hand, it might sound to you like the diphthong “oy” ends with the consonant “yuh,” so Y represents a consonant. Even phoneticians don’t all agree on this, so I recommend just saying that the letter combination O-Y represents the diphthong “oy,” and leaving it at that.
When W occurs at or near the end of a syllable, it’s often part of yet another diphthong. Words like “brown” and “cow,” end with two vowels run together. First you have “aa” [as in “cat”] or “ah,” and then you have “oo.” So in these words, you could argue that W does indeed represent a vowel. On the other hand, maybe to you the word “cow” sounds like it ends with the consonant “wuh” instead of the vowel “oo.” Just as with the diphthong “oy,” phoneticians disagree. So my recommendation is just to say that the combination O-W represents the diphthong “ow,” and stop there, just like we did for the O-Y and the diphthong “oy.”
W also occurs at the end of words like “saw” and “drew.” These words don’t end with diphthongs; they end in the vowels “aw” and “oo.” By the same kind of reasoning we’ve already been using, it’s best not to call W a vowel or a consonant, but just to say that the letter combination A-W represents the vowel “aw,” and the combination E-W represents “oo.”
So to sum up, the only time you can truly say that W represents a vowel is in those rare Welsh borrowings, such as “cwm.” Y, on the other hand, gets to represent a vowel in many more words. It represents short I in words like “gym,” and either short I or long E in words like “happy.” It represents a diphthong in words like “by.”
And that’s our look at when Y and W represent vowels and consonants. Wow! Yay!