"Y" : Consonant or vowel?

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"Y" : Consonant or vowel?

Post  Vincent Law on Sun Apr 08, 2012 7:36 am

"Y" is the twenty-fifth letter in the basic Latin alphabet and represents either a vowel or a consonant in English.

As a consonant in English, Y is normally a palatal approximant, /j/ (year, German Jahr). This is possibly influenced by the Middle English letter yogh (Ȝȝ), which represented /j/. (Yogh's other sound, /ɣ/, came to be written "gh" in Middle English, and although the sound is no longer pronounced in standard modern English silent "gh" is common in many words where this sound was once present, such as "through" and "caught".)

Y first appeared as the Greek letter upsilon. The Romans borrowed a small form of upsilon as the single letter V, representing both /u/ and its consonantal variant /w/. In later ways of writing Latin, V is typically written as U, for a vowel, or V for the consonant. However, this first loaning of upsilon into Latin is not the source of Modern English Y.

The usage of the capital form of upsilon, Y as opposed to U, V, or W, dates back to the Latin of the first century BC, when upsilon was introduced a second time, this time with its "foot" to distinguish it. It was used to transcribe loanwords from the prestigious Attic dialect of Greek, which had the non-Latin sound /y/. Because it was not a native sound of Latin it was usually pronounced /u/ or /i/. The latter pronunciation was the most common in the Classical period and was used by most people except the educated ones.

The letter was also used for other languages with a /y/ sound. Some words of Italic origin were re-spelled with a y: Latin silva 'forest' was commonly spelled sylva, in analogy with the Greek cognate and synonym ὕλη.

The Roman Emperor Claudius proposed introducing a new letter into the Latin alphabet to transcribe the so-called sonus medius (a short vowel before labial consonants), which in inscriptions was sometimes used for Greek upsilon instead.

In Old English there was a native /y/ sound, and so both Latin U and Y were adapted for use. By the time of Middle English, /y/ had lost its roundedness and became identical to I (/iː/ and /ɪ/). Therefore, many words that originally had I were spelled with Y, and vice-versa. (Some dialects, however, retained the sound /y/ and spelled it U, following French usage.)[citation needed]

Likewise, Modern English vocalic Y is pronounced identically to the letter I. But Modern English uses it in only certain places, unlike Middle and early Modern English. It has three uses: for upsilon in Greek loan-words (system: Greek σύστημα), at the end of a word (rye, city; compare cities, where S is final), and before vowel endings (dy-ing, justify-ing).
Vincent Law
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