…and sometimes Y and W…

when I was in grammar school, learning about vowels, I learned them like this: A,E,I,O,U, and sometimes Y, and W.

today on the phone, my mother and I were talking about the oddities of language, and we mentioned Welsh, which has no conventional vowels, and I said, “except for Y and W, and that’s probably where my childhood rhyme about vowels comes from “sometimes Y and W” and she said WHAT? I never learned that” and I said, “well, Im not making it up, thats what I learned,” and she suggested I go online and see if I could find any info one way or another. So I did a search and I found out that I am not alone, that for a [apparently brief] span of time, Y AND W were taught as vowels. What follows is a brief summary of my search results:

from an online discussion forum, I learned I wasnt the only one that was taught this:


some highlights from that link:

So the letter “w” in a word like ‘crowd’ functions like a vowel


I found it interesting what the lexicographers, Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, and the grammarian, Goold Brown, had to say about w being a vowel.

In Grammar of the English Tongue, which is prefixed to his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote:
“Of w, which in diphthongs is often an undoubted vowel, some grammarians have doubted whether it ever be a consonant; and not rather as it is called a double u, or ou, as water may be resolved into ouater; but letters of the same sound are always reckoned consonants in other alphabets: and it may be observed, that w follows a vowel without any hiatus or difficulty of utterance, as frosty winter. Yet I am of opinion that both w and y are always vowels, because they cannot after a vowel be used with the sound which is supposed to make them consonants.”
Note: The last sentence is omitted in the 1785 6th edition and later editions of the Dictionary.

In his 1828 edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster (1758-1843) wrote:
“W is properly a vowel, a simple sound, formed by opening the mouth with a close circular configuration of the lips. it is precisely the ou of the French, and the u of the Spaniards, Italians and Germans. With the h vowels it forms diphthongs, which are of easy pronunciation; as in well, want, will, dwell; pronouced ooell, ooant, ooill, dooell. In English, it is always followed by another vowel, except when followed by h, as is when; but this case is an exception only in writing, and not in pronunciation, for h precedes w in utterance; when being pronounced hooen. In Welsh, w, which is sounded as in English is used without another vowel, as in fwl, a fool; dwn, dun; dwb, mortar; gwn, a gun, and a gown.

Ih his 1823 book, The First Lines of Grammar, Goold Brown (1791-1857) wrote:
“W or Y is called a consonant when it precedes a vowel heard in the same syllable, as in wine, twine, whine, ye, yet, youth; in all other cases, these letters are vowels, as in newly, dewy, eyebrow.

also on another blog, a poster mentions that he and his friends addressed this issue:


WIKI says this:

The name “vowel” is often used for the symbols that represent vowel sounds in a language’s writing system, particularly if the language uses an alphabet. In writing systems based on the Latin alphabet, the letters A, E, I, O, U, W and Y are all used to represent vowels, although not all of these letters represent vowels in all languages (some of them, especially W and Y, are also used to represent approximants); in addition, extensions of the Latin alphabet have independent vowel letters such as Ä, Ö, Ü, Å, Æ, and Ø.

The phonetic values vary by language, and some languages use I and Y for the consonant [j], e.g., initial I in Romanian and initial Y in English. In the original Latin alphabet, there was no written distinction between V and U, and the letter represented the approximant [w] and the vowels [u] and [ʊ]. In Modern Welsh, the letter W represents these same sounds. Similarly, in Creek, the letter V stands for [ə]. There is not necessarily a direct one-to-one correspondence between the vowel sounds of a language and the vowel letters. Many languages that use a form of the Latin alphabet have more vowel sounds than can be represented by the standard set of five vowel letters. In English spelling, the five letters A E I O and U can represent a variety of vowel sounds, while the letter Y frequently represents vowels (as in e.g., “gym” or “happy“); W is used in representing some diphthongs (as in “cow“) and to represent a monophthong in the borrowed words “cwm” and “crwth“.

Other languages cope with the limitation in the number of Latin vowel letters in similar ways. Many languages, like English, make extensive use of combinations of vowel letters to represent various sounds. Other languages use vowel letters with modifications, e.g., Ä in Finnish, or add diacritical marks, like umlauts, to vowels to represent the variety of possible vowel sounds. Some languages have also constructed additional vowel letters by modifying the standard Latin vowels in other ways, such as æ or ø that are found in some of the Scandinavian languages. The International Phonetic Alphabet has a set of 28 symbols to represent the range of basic vowel qualities, and a further set of diacritics to denote variations from the basic vowel.

Someone on the Librarything.com site mentioned the word “crowd” as an example of the “w” as vowel phenomenon….particularly because other “ou” sounding words have the vowel “u” instead of “w” but the “ow” sound is clearly the same as the “ou” sound (as in words like mouse, house, pound sound, and cow, pow, sow (as in female pig, not the seed planting sow) now, plow, etc) except for words like through, or thought and their rhyming counterparts (by the way, the word rhyme is a perfect example of a “y” as vowel word)

I guess the English language has borrowed so much from so many other sources that even its basic rules are in question…at least sometimes…at any rate, apparently, the “w” as vowel rule has disappeared from the classroom (as far as I know) because the only words that seem to fit the strictest definition of the “w” as vowel rule are now only found in Welsh language, and thus arent common enough to illustrate the point.

Can anyone think of any other rules that they learned in school that are no longer taught? math perhaps?


~ by irishgrl on January 18, 2009.

2 Responses to “…and sometimes Y and W…”

  1. This I’d never read of before. The more you know…

  2. I also heard the same rhym when I was taught my vowels in school. Thanks for posting this. My family thinks I’m nuts as well.

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