It’s both – that’s the boring but correct answer. It depends on the context, of course.
In a word like rhythm, for example, we can certainly say that Y functions as a vowel. Otherwise it’d be a word full of consonants, and that just doesn’t work in regular English words. We need at least one open vowel sound to link or end those closed consonant sounds, and in words like rhythm, myth, hymn, fly, and sky, Y performs that function.
If we use it at the beginning of a word or syllable, with the sound we commonly associate with the letter (e.g. young, yesterday), it’s a consonant.
Still, that answer’s not enough for most people. I discovered this recently while watching the episode of the great BBC quiz show Pointless the following clip comes from, in which contestants had to think of countries whose names end in two consonants:
You may have already seen it, as it went viral a while back when the episode aired, and I won’t dwell on Sarah’s answer, because I noticed that in comments on the video (not on Youtube, somewhere on Reddit I believe), people were trying to guess as many of the countries as they could (Pointless gave 18 official possible correct answers by the way: see how many you can guess). Many commenters were correcting people who named Germany and Italy, stating that they couldn’t be accepted because Y functions as a vowel in those two words. Which is kind of logical, except that both were listed among the possible correct answers.
The reason for this is pretty simple. To avoid confusion and controversy, whenever anything involving letters comes up on Pointless, Y is classified as a consonant. And this is also the case linguistically: whenever you see a list of the alphabet divided into vowels and consonants, Y is always with the consonants. The main justification for this is that its consonant sound can’t be replicated by another consonant, whereas its vowel sounds can be replicated by other vowels or diphthongs (hymn – himn, Germany – Germanie/Germanee). So if you really need it to be a consonant or a vowel, it’s a consonant.
Looking back now, the arguments were quite interesting, and revealing of how inflexible people can be about language. I understood the people who dismissed Germany and Italy as possible answers, but I also couldn’t comprehend their angry lack of understanding of why the answers were accepted. Yes, Y is functioning as a vowel in those names, but couldn’t they imagine the controversy and anger of contestants if the programme hadn’t accepted them, given Y is generally considered a consonant? I wonder if such people simply can’t put themselves in other people’s shoes, and imagine people having different levels of knowledge, or looking at that knowledge in a different way. Perhaps in real life they’re more reasonable, but the anonymity of the internet makes them more entrenched in their beliefs.
Interesting also were the armchair linguists who took a little language knowledge and ran away with it on incredible tangents. Like the person who insisted that the T in ballet is a vowel because it’s silent. Clearly the internet makes us more assertive in arguing, and makes us want to “win” arguments more than in real life, where dealing with someone face-to-face makes us more reasonable. Thankfully you all keep things nice and civil here in this little corner of the internet.
So what have we learned today?
- Y can be a consonant or a vowel, depending on how you use it, but if you insist on choosing, it’s a consonant
- It’s important to be civil online, and do some basic fact-checking before you make assertions about things that can be easily looked up
- Paris is not a country and it doesn’t end in two consonants. Poor Sarah
- Don’t get on Mariam’s bad side. Ever!