How Many Vowels Are There?
How many vowels are there in English? Five? Six? Twenty? Five and a half?
If you ask an American what the English vowels are, we will almost all say the exact same thing that we learned in school as children:
A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.
Ellen Degeneres recently tweeted at NSYNC, and she jokingly congratulated for making a major accomplishment "without a vowel" in their band name. However, as many people (including Ginseng) explained, Y is a vowel in NSYNC. Ellen was just making a joke, of course, but many people, learners and native speakers alike, really don't understand what it means when we say that Y is "sometimes" a vowel.
Let's look a little closer at what exactly we mean when we say "and sometimes Y" in order to help us understand several important aspects of English pronunciation and spelling.
Vowels and Consonants
Before we can say how many vowels there are, we need to clarify what exactly a vowel is. The answer is not as simple as you may think. The most common dictionary definitions say something like this:
1. a speech sound in which air flows out through the mouth and is not blocked by the teeth, tongue, or lips;
2. a letter representing one of these sounds.
On the other hand, consonant is usually defined something like this:
consonant (n.) - any speech sound or letter that is not a vowel.
So a vowel is a sound made with your mouth open, and a consonant is basically every other sound.
Sounds and letters
You may have noticed that the definitions of consonant and vowel above talk about both sounds and letters, and this is where the confusion comes from. Sounds and letters are different things. Letters are written and are meant to represent the sounds in a language.
However, you have probably noticed that English sounds and letters don't have a perfect correspondence. For example, sometimes the letter C sounds like S (as in city) but other times it sounds like K (as in cat).
This is especially true about vowels. If we ignore Y for a moment, there are 5 vowel letters: A, E, I, O, U. However, if we look at vowel sounds there are between 14 and 21 (depending on the accent).
How is this possible? Think about the different sounds that A makes in the words father, bake, and cap, and the different U sounds in put, cup, and nuke.
The most important idea here is that letters can make different sounds.
Why is Y Special?
Okay, but we're talking about Y, right? Is it a consonant or a vowel!? How many vowels are there!? We need a number!
So, like many other letters, the letter Y represents many different sounds. You can see the most common ones in the words only, cry, myth, and yet.
Let's look more closely at those examples: in only, Y makes the long E sound /i/, the same sound E makes in we. In cry, Y makes the long I sound /aɪ/, pronounced like the I in mine. In myth, Y makes the short I sound /ɪ/, the same sound as the I in kid. As you can see, these are all vowel sounds.
The Y in yet is different. It isn't really a sound that other letters frequently make. Its "the Y sound" /j/. And this is a consonant sound. If you make this sound, you will feel that the back of your tongue rises up toward the top of your mouth. Remember, when we block or obstruct the air to make a sound, this is what makes a consonant.
So the reason that the letter Y is sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant is that it makes several different sounds. Some of these sounds are vowel sounds, and one is a consonant sound. In the words only, cry, and myth, Y is a vowel. In yet, yellow, and you it is a consonant.
In case you were still wondering about Ellen's NSYNC tweet, the Y in NSYNC is definitely a vowel.
Y is Almost Always a Vowel
So we know why Y is sometimes a vowel, but we were curious: How often is Y a vowel and how often is it a consonant. How common are the different sounds that Y makes? The answer was not easy to find, but eventually we came across an academic paper that contained the answer we needed.
It turns out that Y is not just "sometimes" a vowel. It is almost always a vowel. It is only a consonant around 2.5% of the time. That means about 97.5% of the time it is a vowel. By far, the most common sound it makes is long E /i/. As you might guess, this is probably because -y and -ly are very common suffixes in English.
Next time you hear someone say "A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y," you can correct them: "A, E, I, O, U, and 97.5% of the time Y!"