Y, O Y, O Y


Is 'Y' a vowel or a consonant?

As Phil has remarked on Tumblr, this comes down to the internal politics of the alphabet.

The Ys themselves are internally divided on this point. 

There are reactionary Ys who want to be vowels because they aspire to the special status. 

There are liberal Ys who champion the allegedly superior values of the vowels and say that Ys should try to be more vowel-like for that reason. 

There’s even an idea - very widespread and much pushed by elite Ys - that “we’re all vowels now” and that consonants have disappeared.  The old opposition between vowels and consonants has been superseded, and to even talk about consonants is to peddle divisive ‘lexical war’ rhetoric. 

However, the vast majority of letters are still consonants, and there are some Ys who recognise this, proudly declare their consonant status, and call for unity between all consonants against the tyranny of the vowels. 

However (again), there is also a strain of resentment against Ys amongst consonants, even radical Ys who want to identify with consonants.  They say Ys have a privileged status, what with being ‘semi-vowels’ and all, and that they thus enjoy the benefits of partial-vowel identity.  They say that the Ys who claim to be consonants are ‘just tourists’, etc.  This is curiously...um... consonant with remarks often made by vowels about radical Ys being ‘champagne consonants’. 

Of course, radical consonantist Ys will often dispute with Rs and Ms and Bs and so on about how they have much more in common with consonants than with vowels... but the Rs and Ms and Bs will often write this off as 'vowelsplaining'.

And then there’s the ongoing and bitter row about participation in Countdown, what with its apartheid policy. 



Max Curtis 5 years, 3 months ago


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Ger of All Trades 5 years, 3 months ago

I wonder what Lawrence Miles would make of this.

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Matt M 5 years, 3 months ago

He would think "I wish I'd checked that story I wrote with no vowels in it to check that it actually had no vowels in it" ;)

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Luca 5 years, 3 months ago

You're forgetting one the most fundamental things about the Y (and the W for that matter). Vowels or consonants, they are very much "english" letters, and their growing usage in latin countries is very much a sign of imperialism.

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Aylwin 5 years, 3 months ago

No, Y is originally a Latin letter, introduced in antiquity to represent Greek upsilon in loanwords and names (as Z was for zeta), and continues to serve that purpose in the Greek-derived vocabulary of, for instance, French. In most European languages, however, Y is, like its Greek forebear, always a vowel, or almost always. Its ambivalent status in English is evidently a typical product of the exceptionally subtle gradations of the English class system.

If there's a crime here, it's the extermination of the Y population of Italian.

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Gnaeus 5 years, 3 months ago

Ah, so the Celtic and Slavonic language groups don't exist. Or else the phonology of Welsh is wholly a construct of imperialism?

Good grief.

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Luca 5 years, 3 months ago

I was talking about latin countries where the growing use of anglicisms is a sign of imperialism. Of course other languages use the Y and it has it's own history in linguistics, but that is fundamentally not what I was talking about.

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Camestros Felapton 5 years, 3 months ago

Can you cover whether submarines are ships or boats next?

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ferret 5 years, 3 months ago

It's very simple: all vessels in the British Navy are ships. All of them, no matter how large or small, without exception. It's a more dignified term, and keeps communication nice and simple to avoid confusion.

Oh apart from submarines, they're boats.

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Anthony Herrera 5 years, 3 months ago

This article does nothing but restate everything we already know. This isn't shallow analysis, this is non-analysis. Compared to the usual standards of Eruditorum Press this is completely laughable.

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Gnaeus 5 years, 3 months ago

Now that really is damning with faint praise.

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Jane Campbell 5 years, 3 months ago

That there is a schism in the Y community is reflected in the morphology of the letter -- not just a snake's tongue, but as if the head of an I has been cleaved in two. But the Y is clear on its preferences, namely it likes both consonants and vowels, as well as participating in both communities. As such, it is the most alchemical of letters. It is quintessentially mercurial.

Sadly, most of the debate around Y seems to question its very existence.

But this should not be unexpected, given its titular self-reflective phonology. This is not, however, an excuse for the erasure of its narrative; let us not make it a silent letter! If anything, we should laud the ability of the Y to transgress the artificial categorization of lettering. For indeed, phonemes truly exist on a spectrum.

By its very nature, then, the Y breaks down the false dichotomy of the debate. Furthermore, it ends up representing a "union of opposites" and a such the symbolism of its glyph is rather one of "cleaving together." Given its proximity to a rather prominent X motif, we might even go so far as to suggest Y is a step beyond "crossing over" and indeed points the way to Ascension.

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dm 5 years, 3 months ago

So Jack's lost it, then.

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Andrew Plotkin 5 years, 3 months ago

Cliff Johnson sure is great.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 3 months ago

The image was my choice, not Jack's. (As I noted in the Tumblr discussion, the fact that I imagine the alphabet to have internal politics is 100% down to 3 in Three.)

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Megara Justice Machine 5 years, 3 months ago

They can be two things!

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Timber-munki 5 years, 3 months ago

Won't someone think of the chyldren?

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John G Wood 5 years, 3 months ago

The title reminded me of that Hale & Pace sketch:

Pace: [slowly shaking head] Why, oh why, oh...
Hale: ...spells yoyo.

As a Y myself, I appreciate that you acknowledged our consonantal nature. Despite being bribed into taking on some of the aspects of vowels (though we would never be accepted as equals by the 'true' vowels) I know where my loyalties should lie, even if I feel uncomfortable there.

Power to the consonants!

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taiey 5 years, 2 months ago

This exists because of me, and I am so proud.

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aolmail login 9 months, 2 weeks ago

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Thank for sharing this awesome post love to read this.

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