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Sometimes y and w

I Survived the Great Vowel Shift

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1wyolib
Jun 26, 2008, 5:30pm Top

Hope you don't mind if I ask a question that has bothered me for some time. When did elementary schools stop teaching the vowels as "a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y and w." My children (16,15,and 7) have just learned "a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y."
I hadn't thought of it before but maybe not all elemetary schools in the 70's taught the W as mine did.

2WholeHouseLibrary
Jun 26, 2008, 5:52pm Top

Wow! Is that a word made up of solely vowels?

Hello wyolib, and welcome to LibraryThing.
Couldn't help but notice that you joined just today (and haven't added any books to your catalog -- in time I suppose). And yet you found this group (of which I, also, am not a member).

I was born in the early 50's, attended a private school K-8, and started public high school in 1966. I don't recall "W" being mentioned as a vowel, EVER. It seems to be a terrible President as well.

Please stop by the Green Dragon sometime. We have cheese and ale, and good conversation.

3krolik
Jun 26, 2008, 5:55pm Top

No W for me as a kid--public schools, Midwest, late 60s-70s.

4jjwilson61
Jun 26, 2008, 5:58pm Top

I've never heard of w as a vowel and I went to elementary school in the late 60's in a suburb of LA.

5rebeccanyc
Edited: Jun 26, 2008, 6:00pm Top

No W for me either, NYC late 50s/early 60s.

And thank goodness no W after January 20.

6Mr.Durick
Edited: Jun 26, 2008, 6:13pm Top

So the deterioration of American public schooling began, apparently, in the late 50's to early 60's. I started school, if I calculate correctly, in 1949 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and I remember first studying the alphabet in kindergarten. Along the way I learned that the vowels were a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w. I never understood the inclusion of w, but it was there for us.

It induced in me and many of my classmates lip rounding. We distinguish who from hoo. In linguistics, in graduate school, we learned about glides, and a w like thing can be a vocalic glide. Perhaps in grade school we were taught an underinformed mash up of orthography and linguistics.

Robert

7rebeccanyc
Jun 26, 2008, 6:27pm Top

But I was taught the alphabet by my father, who was born in 1909 and went to elementary school in NYC in the 1910s, so maybe this was something local to your area. By the way, I am not an expert on linguistics in any way; I just watch this group because I love language.

8prosfilaes
Jun 26, 2008, 6:44pm Top

Distinguishing who from hoo is purely a dialectal issue that has nothing to do with the deterioration of American schooling. As for vowels, I would say that l, r, and d are frequently syllabic and hence in a sense vowels in English. I'm not sure what the point of trying to assign phonetic values to the English alphabet is--any solution is going to be a large step from reality--but I'll assume that the slightly arbitrary distinction of vowel and consonant properties is useful; it fails to follow, however, that the inclusion or exclusion of w is a matter of much significance.

9jjwilson61
Edited: Jun 26, 2008, 7:36pm Top

The Wikipedia article on vowels gives gym as an example of y as a vowel and cwm as an example for w. If cwm is the best that they could come up with then I guess it's no wonder they dropped the w is sometimes a vowel thing.

ETA: How do you pronounce ku:m?

10MyopicBookworm
Jun 27, 2008, 1:04pm Top

Maybe the existence in English of Welsh loan word cwm was what the instigator of the "w is sometimes a vowel" theory had in mind. It's a perfectly valid statement for Welsh, but not (as far as I can see) for English, except in this rather unusual instance.

cwm /ku:m/ rhymes with tomb /tu:m/, zoom /zu:m/.

11TeacherDad
Jun 27, 2008, 1:19pm Top

Vindicated at last! I remember "sometimes ...w" but have found very, very few others that don't think I just wasn't paying attention in class...

12varielle
Edited: Jun 30, 2008, 8:56pm Top

I went to public school in NC in the '60s and we also had "sometimes y and w". I consulted my best friend, who I went through school with, and she remembers it as well.

Edited for a grammatical error that is a reflection on my haste and not my vowel confusion.

13valleymom
Jun 30, 2008, 3:41pm Top

Wow, this is a first for me. I've never heard of "sometimes w." I attended primary school in upstate NY. This is a new turn for me. I think I'll check with my other half & find out what his experience was in Florida, Tennesseee & Arizona.

14omboy
Jul 3, 2008, 5:22pm Top

Public school in 50's and 60's and no W in set of vowels for me.
Try reading David Crystal's "The stories of English" for a vowel background. You'll come away wondering how anyone ever came to decide on just which letters should be vowels. LOL

15rowmyboat
Jul 3, 2008, 9:16pm Top

Hum, as someone who went to NY public schools starting in 1989, I only learned that w could be a vowel when I studied Welsh in college. I suppose because in modern American English there are no words -- that I can think of -- that have w as the sole vowel, whereas there are words where that is the case for y.

16ambushedbyasnail
Jul 11, 2008, 10:35am Top

I started kindergarten in '89, and I can remember sometime during early elementary hearing rumors, just whispers, of w being a vowel. Maybe one teacher threw it out there one time, just as an interesting fact. Anyway, no one ever taught words that might use w as a vowel, or required us to add w to the aeiouy list. But I definitely knew.

17bell7
Jul 11, 2008, 10:40am Top

When my mom went to a Catholic school in the '60s, she was taught "sometimes y and w," but when she went to public school the next year she was corrected for considering "w" to be a vowel. (She attended Massachusetts schools, though, so I don't know if that changes the regional theory or not.)

Personally, I was never taught that, but I'm from ambushedbyasnail's generation.

18Pepys
Jul 11, 2008, 10:52am Top

Does 'sometimes y' mean that /y/ in /yes/ should be considered a consonant, while it's a vowel in /anything/? I had never thought about it. Be that as it may, in France, we include /y/ in the vowel list, without any restriction. And NEVER /w/.

A funny thing is that there is a swap of /w/ and /y/ beween the English /vowel/ and the French /voyelle/...

19christiguc
Jul 11, 2008, 10:59am Top

We were taught "sometimes y and w" in my school, Texas--mid to late 80s.

20EowynA
Jul 13, 2008, 11:28am Top

I learned "sometimes y and w" in Iowa in the 1950s and 60s. And since "w" is two "U"s, I have often wondered why we don't spell the word "vacuum" as "vacwm". Then it would be clear that "w" can be a vowel. But other than words from Welsh, I've never seen a "w" vowel. Unless, of course, it is a vowel in the word "vowel."

21skittles
Jul 13, 2008, 7:55pm Top

I occasionally heard "sometimes y & w" but the reasoning given to me was that w was a vowel in the mixed vowel sounds, such as "ou" & "ow" (& stuff like "oa" "ie" "ei" "au" "ay" "oy", etcetera)

I'm sure there are other combination vowel sounds that may use consonants... and I think there is one more consonant that is also considered a "sometimes" vowel.

22scottja
Jul 19, 2008, 10:58am Top

My understanding was that "sometimes w" (which I've heard, but wasn't explicitly taught in school) was a reference to the use of "w" in various diphthongs ("ow", "aw", "ew").

23skittles
Jul 19, 2008, 1:13pm Top

"diphthong"!!!!

That's the word I couldn't remember!!

(my brain cells are leaking out much too fast)

24frogman54
Jul 19, 2008, 10:13pm Top

This really brings me back. At my public elementary school in Southern California, this actually became a schoolyard argument. The "sometimes 'y' and 'w'" view was being taught by one (probably only one) of the teachers there, whose students vigorously defended it against those of us taught merely the "sometimes 'y'" version to whom the notion of 'w' as a vowel was patently ridiculous. Some details are fuzzy but I do remember clearly the word "cwm" eventually presented as the example; I don't think diphthongs were ever at issue. A close friend of mine with a fierce passion for language even then reported that he was able to dig up the word in an old dictionary, where the entry did indicate it to be of Welsh origin. Since this word, nor any other with 'w' as a vowel, was not to be found in any newer dictionary, his conclusion as I recall was that case for 'w' as a vowel in (our) English was very weak. This may seem implausibly sophisticated for a grammar schooler, but know that my friend, unsurprisingly, went on to become an academic linguist. It is to him I owe my fascination, avocational only, with language. It remained cause for comment throughout our school years whenever he was able to produce a word or phrase from some other language spelled without canonical vowels.

25vpfluke
Jul 20, 2008, 12:02am Top

So the letter "w" in a word like 'crowd' functions like a vowel, just like adding a "t" to the word 'leap' changes the sound of the long "ea" to a short "e". So, is "t" somewhat like a vowel also?

26TeacherDad
Jul 21, 2008, 12:45am Top

re #24: you argued about diphthongs in elementary school?!?!?!?
We argued about whether The Hulk could beat up The Bionic Man, or which Angel was foxy-est...

27moibibliomaniac
Jul 21, 2008, 3:56pm Top

I remember being taught that "y" was sometimes a vowel, when I went to school on Long Island in the 50s and 60s, but "w" was never identified as 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."

28ambushedbyasnail
Jul 21, 2008, 5:08pm Top

#27: I am SO cutting-and-pasting that. Saving as w.txt. Cherishing forever.

29CarolO
Jul 21, 2008, 5:35pm Top

Thanks for bringing this up - my husband and I have tussled over this very question.

I was taught sometimes Y and W during the 60's-70's in WA state.

He was taught sometimes Y during the 60's-70's in CA.

30scottja
Jul 23, 2008, 9:48am Top

#27 - Great! Let me add the opinion of the Demonic lexicographer himself, Ambrose Bierce:

W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out some simple Greek word, like επιξοριαμβικοσ. Still, it is now thought by the learned that other agencies than the difference of the two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of "the glory that was Greece" and the rise of "the grandeur that was Rome." There can be no doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W (calling it "wow," for example) our civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better endured.

31Pepys
Jul 23, 2008, 10:03am Top

But W in France is called "double V", so, for me, it's a double consonant... ;-)

32frogman54
Aug 4, 2008, 7:12am Top

On the lighter side -Re #26: As I said, diphthongs never came up. Truth be told - my friend the future linguist excepted - we likely did not know the word, although certainly we understood that the sound of a vowel could be altered by placing it in combination with another letter. At this distance, I cannot quote quotes or name names, but in the spirit of "truthiness" I offer the following reconstruction:

"What, 'w' is a vowel?! No way! That's dumb!"
"It's true!"
"Prove it! Name a word where 'w' is a vowel."
"I forget, but there are some. Mr. Brown said so and he knows everything!"
"Yeah? Well, Mrs. Smith never said anything about 'w' and she knows tons more than Mr. Brown!"
"She does not."
"Does too!...and the Fantastic Four could smash the X-Men any day of the week!"

Re #29: This was in CA; maybe our "Mr. Brown" was from WA - he certainly wasn't Welsh.

More seriously, with thanks to moibibliomaniac (#27): can anyone tell me the current opinion on status of ‘w’ as a vowel? Maybe the whole question is now considered passé or just a pedagogical matter. There are many aspects of context in the written word that may change the value of a vowel symbol and some might be quite complex. Does the fact that in some cases, this context boils down to a single phonetic symbol make that symbol a vowel – especially if it, as in the case of ‘w’ (unlike ‘y’) in American English anyway, it seems to possess no value as a vowel in isolation?

33vpfluke
Aug 4, 2008, 5:01pm Top

I remember hearing about dipthongs in the 7th grade. But I did not hear about w making the preceding letter into a dipthong (don - down).

What I remember was that the proper pronunciation of the word "I" was as the dipthong Ah-ee, and not as AH. I was in a school in north Florida at the type.

34varielle
Aug 17, 2008, 6:39pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

35erilarlo
Sep 19, 2008, 8:42pm Top

Well, _I_ learned y and w, but I was born in 1934. . .

As for W being a terrible president, I would have to agree loudly 8-)

w is certainly a vowel in Wales. Try to pronounce the name of a town so that a local will recognize it some time!

36Editormum
Oct 1, 2008, 12:26am Top

1970s public and private schools here. I was taught "y and w." Examples I remember from back then of "y" as vowel: thy, try, sly, wry, why, cry, fly, my. "W" as a vowel was always combined with another vowel, as in "now, new, law."

I never got an example for "w" being a stand-alone vowel until I started playing competitive Scrabble, when I learned of "cwm" and "crwth." Both of which are, of course, properly classed as Welsh words, not English.

37karhne
Oct 21, 2008, 11:38am Top

I think it probably has to do with the English vowel shift, that the dipthongs wound up becoming long vowels, and the ws were less emphasized. The example I keep wanting to see here is "Snow". The W, acting as a vowel, lengthens the O. This is why it is not pronounced like the O in clog or fog. Of course, the O in "no" is caught in the vowel shift, itself, and you can see little stragglers in variants like "nah."

38nitnat
Oct 21, 2008, 7:23pm Top

Well, educated in the 1970-80's down under...W as a vowel just didn't make it to the southern hemisphere!

39Naren559
Oct 28, 2008, 10:11pm Top

How can "e" and "o" be diphthongs?

40erilarlo
Oct 29, 2008, 2:12pm Top

"e" and "o" are letters of the alphabet. In English they can sometimes be used to SPELL diphthongs, just as some 2-letter spellings can represent a monophthong, as in "hoot".

41vpfluke
Oct 29, 2008, 3:22pm Top

The reason the letter o can be a dipthong is in its pronunciation. For, instance when one pronounces the long o sound (the o in bone), ones mouth slightly begins to close. So the sound kind of begins like the ou of bought and kind of ends up like the oo of tool. This all happens in a mini-second. A dipthong is really two sounds glided together, and, as erilarlo said, they can be spelled as one letter or two.

42MyopicBookworm
Nov 14, 2008, 8:55am Top

The single letter "e" can even represent a triphthong, as in the word "yes" in certain regions of the southern US :-)

(IPA jei@s)

43MyopicBookworm
Nov 14, 2008, 9:00am Top

>37 karhne:
I can't think of a single English word which ends in a short "o", so I can't see how the "w" in snow is lengthening the vowel. If it was spelt "sno", surely it would still be pronounced the same way.
Monosyllabic words ending in "-o" have a long vowel, though it is not always the same one (diphthong in fro, go, no, so; but pure long vowel in do, to, who).

44PhoenixTerran
Nov 14, 2008, 9:02am Top

I learned "sometimes 'y' and sometimes 'w'" in rural central Ohio, early 1990s. Though, my parents never believed me, and they went through the same school system a couple decades earlier.

45vpfluke
Nov 14, 2008, 3:39pm Top

I think there is a w in snow for etymological detritus reasons. Proto-Germanic is *snaiwaz.

46skittles
Nov 14, 2008, 5:39pm Top

#45: gesundheit.

(could you translate what you just said, please?)

47erilarlo
Nov 14, 2008, 6:03pm Top

Things hang on from earlier versions of a language. Proto-Germanic is WAY further back than Old English--which is a Germanic language. German is full of such things--all those umlauts are the result of similar processes.

48vpfluke
Nov 14, 2008, 7:27pm Top

English spelling is obviously not all based on sounds. Unneeded letters are left in (hint, the detritus) to point to a word's heritage. English isn't like Finnish or Norwegian which have formal orthographical changes from time to time to keep up with sound changes in words.

49skittles
Nov 14, 2008, 9:57pm Top

Thank you both very much....

in other words, language evolves.... with things left over from former need.

50vpfluke
Nov 15, 2008, 5:29pm Top

And shards of English words have archeological value.

51irishgrl
Jan 18, 2009, 5:42pm Top

I went to school in the Bay area in the early 60's and I was taught "sometimes Y and W" and my mother was surprised to learn this as she was never taught this and had no idea that I was....I cant recall now what word or words satisfied the "w as vowel" exception but I know at that time we were taught some (or one)....

52lunalovebook
Jan 25, 2009, 4:18pm Top

I'm a senior in high school right now, and I was taught "sometimes y and w" when I was in elementary in the late 90s- early 00s. My teacher never explained why, though, and even some of my friends who went to the same school don't remember learning that. Clearly, the teaching of the vowels is very inconsistent!

53erilarlo
Jan 25, 2009, 9:29pm Top

The w in words like when and what can be held just as long as an a, e, i or u. So can the y in you, for instance. They can also be expressed phonetically like vowels. It's one of our many spelling oddities.

54vpfluke
Jan 25, 2009, 11:02pm Top

Well, the letter m can be held for a long time, as in the archetypal mantra -- om (or aum).

55erilarlo
Jan 26, 2009, 9:53am Top

Oh, m, n, ng, l, and many others can be held, too 8-) It's hardly the only test! But it is something true of vowels that could let y and w sneak into the edge of the group.

56Sarah79
Feb 12, 2009, 9:52pm Top

W?? As a vowel??
Say what?
I have never heard of this.
Weird.

57bonniebooks
Feb 13, 2009, 2:25pm Top

Some of my friends from the South add "w" to the end of that rhyme about vowel letters. It makes sense when you think about the letter "w" being used to help spell the vowel sounds: /ow/ as in "cow" or /o-e/ as in "snow" because you can even hear/feel the /w/ on the release of those vowel sounds. But when it comes to the spelling of English words, the letter "w" can't really be put in the same category as the letter "y" which can stand alone to spell a vowel sound (as in my, gym, or funny).

I teach my students to look at the "w" as consonant letter that acts as part of a team to spell vowel sounds (just as "r" helps to spell the vowel sounds /or/, /ar/, and /er/) but also have them notice that in both cases the vowel letter always has to come first.

58jjwilson61
Feb 13, 2009, 5:12pm Top

Well, there is cwm.

59bonniebooks
Feb 13, 2009, 7:37pm Top

Not an English word! The letters "j" or "g" spell vowel sounds in other languages, but that doesn't mean that we call those vowel letters in English.

60Nichtglied
Feb 16, 2009, 9:01am Top

This may be of interest
from reference.dictionary.com :

semivowel   

noun Phonetics. a speech sound of vowel quality used as a consonant, as (w) in wet or (y) in yet.
-------------------------------------------------​
Origin:
1520–30; semi- + vowel; r. semivocal

61bonniebooks
Feb 16, 2009, 9:49am Top

Yes, you're right. Both /w/ and /y/ are part of the release of other vowel sounds (/w/ at the end of /oo/ and /y/ at the end of /ee/) but you can't say either sound for a long time (a key characteristic of a vowel sound along with vibration of the vocal cords). I'm talking about vowel letters, not vowel sounds. The letter "w" is called a consonant letter in English but it does help to spell various vowel sounds. It just doesn't spell any vowel sound in the English language by itself, while the letter "y" does.

62Nichtglied
Edited: Feb 16, 2009, 3:20pm Top

@61
The point is w's status as a semivocal, not a pure consonant. As the German Wikipedia IPA table puts it, the English w amounts to a /u/-sound functioning as a consonant. "Wish" could be rendered as /u/-ish. Cooperate contains no consonants between the o's, yet the sound represented by one ('w') can clearly be heard when the word is pronounced, just as onion contains the sound usually represented by y. The distinction between vowel & consonant is not always clear cut.

It's impossible to make the sound represented in English by 'w' (as consonant) without making the /u/ or the /ʊ/ sound, just as it's impossible to make the sound represented by 'y' (as consonant) without making the /i/ sound. Even when y and w are used to represent consonants, their vocal nature is clearly present.

I agree with your statement that w "doesn't spell any vowel sound in the English language by itself," (with the exception of words borrowed from Welsh, etc) but at the same time I'd suggest that 'w' by itself doesn't spell any sound at all.

63bonniebooks
Edited: Feb 17, 2009, 4:23am Top

>62 Nichtglied:

"I'd suggest that 'w' by itself doesn't spell any sound at all."

Well, it has to spell some sound or we wouldn't be able to hear and differentiate that particular sound from other sounds--but we do! You can recognize the difference between "wed" and "ed," right? And we recognize the kids who have speech problems when they continue to say /wed/ for /red/ long after their peers.

But, I understand what you're saying about the sound /w/ being a semivowel. It is, after all, the tail end/release of /oo/ (which means it also plays a part in the sounds /ow/ and /o_e/) so I'm agreeing with you on that. I even have a vague memory of the letter "w" used originally to spell a vowel sound--maybe /oo/?

Do I think it is "impossible" to produce the sound /w/ without the /oo/ before /w/? No. I think the opposite is more true, that it's almost impossible to end a word with the three vowel sounds above without getting some /w/ at the end (e.g., pow, toe, boo). Just as it's to difficult to say "tree" without that release and the resulting /y/ at the end.

Looking back, maybe I'm misunderstanding when you're talking about a sound or a letter? I'm trying to make the distinction between sounds versus letters. For example, the sounds /er/, /or/, and /ar/ are considered true vowel sounds by many linguists. And I agree, as they fit the criteria of being both "loud" (vocal cords vibrating) and "long" (you can stretch each one of these sounds out for as long as you have breath). But the letter "r" is not considered a vowel letter.

Some people stretch out the beginning of the consonant sound /r/ (which should be a quick tongue curl and release, closer to /ruh/ without the /uh/) by adding /er/. Yes, you can get to /r/ that way and when you do it fast, people will recognize it as the consonant sound (e.g., errred). But when they do that, they are adding a separate and distinguishable vowel sound to the beginning of a consonant sound that doesn't need/have to be there. Just because they can do it, doesn't mean they should! :-) These are two separate sounds. The first is a vowel sound, the second a consonant sound.





64Nichtglied
Edited: Feb 17, 2009, 9:48am Top

What I meant about 'w' not spelling a sound by itself is this: I don't think there is an /oo/ "before" the w without which the w couldn't be pronounced. I'm saying the /oo/ is the 'w' sound and what we're hearing as w is actually the byproduct of moving from one vowel sound to another...

The difference between "ed" and "wed" is the the "u" sound at the beginning of "wed" (/u/-ed) vs. "ed" without the u-sound at the beginning. The w-sound is the direct byproduct of, in the case of "wed," the unrounding of the lips associated with moving from u to e. If you were to say, "Oooh, ED!" fast you'd have "wed." The reason 'w' doesn't spell a sound by itself is this: If you try to pronounce it in isolation, you're either just pronouncing /u/ or you're forced to add a second vowel sound to create the sound we think of as the consonant w. We can say "we, wa, wo," but how do we say "w?"

W is a symbol. It represents a vowel sound that serves in the role of a consonant. As a letter, it would be easy to do without in the English language. Its sound is present in many words where the letter itself fails. Langwage.

Edited to add: I once knew a German who, when saying the word "world" used the German 'w' sound: "Vorld." But after I asked him to say "oui" in French, then had him take the "ou" sound from "oui" and place it in front of "orld" he was able to pronounce "world" as it's said in English. I don't believe (though I could be wrong) that either o or u is considered a consonant in French, but the shift from the /u/ sound to the /i/ sound creates the sound of a w in-between.

Your points regarding R are good ones...R does often sound like it includes at least a schwa sound in front of it. The difference is that 'w' (like 'y') is naturally produced on the way from one vowel sound to another. R you have to go out of your way to say...

65erilarlo
Feb 17, 2009, 10:18am Top

w can have a sound, usually as part of a diphthong, both initial and final. It IS possible to hold either sound longer than a stop, of course, but this is hardly the only "test" for a vowel, as m, n, ng, l, r can all be held as long as one pleases and use vibration of the vocal cords as well.

Note: "won" and "one" may have the same diphthong, but "what, why, when", etc., do not have homonyms without the w.

66jjwilson61
Feb 17, 2009, 11:51am Top

64> I don't think it's possible to pronounce the letter T without putting some vowel behind it, but it's still a consonant.

67Nichtglied
Edited: Feb 17, 2009, 1:56pm Top

The difference is that the t-sound is an actual sound that's independent of any vowels that may come before or after it whereas the 'w' requires two vowel sounds to be heard...The 'u' as consonant and the sound following it. You can make a t-sound without a vowel sound following it unless you count the expulsion of air associated with its production as a "vowel sound" or you feel the need to use your vocal chords in the process, but since 't' is voiceless that shouldn't be necessary.

The only point I'm trying to make regarding 'w'--but using far too many words to do it--is that it definitely belongs with 'y' in the half-vowel category, even if saying "and sometimes w" may be taking it a little too far. Saying "it's a consonant" and leaving it at that doesn't tell the whole story.

68erilarlo
Feb 17, 2009, 3:45pm Top

If you add vocal cords to a voiceless stop like "t" it becomes "d".

And of course you're not pronouncing a letter. A letter is a written symbol for a sound, and which sound a letter represents varies with language spoken.

69Nichtglied
Edited: Feb 17, 2009, 5:51pm Top

You're pronouncing a sound the letter represents, and as long as two speakers agree on the sound values represented by the letters, a discussion is possible. No one's claiming the letter itself makes a sound,

Of course the sounds of some of them vary within languages too. The 't' is a good example, since some people speaking English pronounce it as a glottal instead of as a dental stop.

You're right. It does become d if you voice it...No, wait. It becomes the sound a "d" represents.

70vpfluke
Feb 17, 2009, 11:30pm Top

I think the English language t is more alveolar than dental. Pronouncing the t as a glottal stop (usually in words like bottle) is mostly done in some British dialects. It's fairly rare in the U.S.

One neat trick that the English language does to help people differentiate similar one syllable words is to pronounce the vowel slightly longer if it is followed by a voiced consonant. So, the a in pad is held a millisecond longer than the a in pat. Both a's are pronounced with what is sometimes called a short a, (although some dialects have what is called a broader sounding a). Note, what is called a long a in English is really a long version of the short e followed by a short version of the long e. (I had to put this in to confuse everybody).

71IronMike
Feb 19, 2009, 1:15am Top

I am blown away by this conversation. I especially appreciate >27 moibibliomaniac: from moibibliomaniac. Many of the comments are beyond my ken, such as all that stuff about glottal stops etc., but I am so glad I joined this group. Thank you all.
P.s. I went to grammar school in the Bronx, NYC, back in the '40's, and I was taught "sometimes y" but I never heard of "sometimes w" till now.

72shannondees
Edited: Feb 24, 2009, 3:11am Top

I started school in 1979 and learned the "sometimes w and y" rule. However my wife, who is only 1 year younger than I am, did not. Our schools were in the same county and only about 45-60 miles away from one another.

Our kids did not learn this rule either.

A few years ago at the dinner table my preschool aged daughter was reciting her vowels and said "and sometimes y". I applauded her for having done such a good job, but asked if it wasn't "sometimes w and y" anymore only to receive bewildered looks from my wife, son and daughter.

Its certainly not taught in schools anymore and has apparently been in the process of being phased out for decades.

Only an extremely small amount of words use "w" as a vowel and most of those seem to be Welsh in origin.

73Rood
Mar 2, 2009, 1:13am Top

While manning an information table at Arizona State University this weekend (my table devoted to genital integrity), I entered into a rather lively conversation with four young fellows, two of whom were dressed rather colourfully ... or, shall we say they were dressed with style, but darkly and drably? One of them, the tall one, wore a black cutaway with a top hat, while the other fellow wore a black T-shirt with black trousers.

Printed across the front of his black T-shirt was a white cross followed by an apparent acronym: "PWNED".

During a lull in our conversation a third fellow asked the signification of the letters "PWNED". It seemed a logical questions, but to our surprise,the fellow declined at first to answer, saying that we wouldn't want to know. Of course that only intrigued us the more. After a bit of hemming and hawing, he finally admitted that the letters had a religious meaning, but he refused to say more.

A bit exasperated by this, I insisted that if it was possible for me to openly advertise and discuss male genitals in a public setting, surely he could reveal the religious significance of a simple acronym.

At that challenge, he finally did give a rather esoteric, new-wave, crypto-religious import to the letters, which turn out to be not an acronym at all, but a word: "PWNED", pronounced poned, whose meaning only has import to a very, very select few. Don't ask, and I won't tell.

74DaynaRT
Mar 2, 2009, 1:23am Top

>73 Rood:
Sounds like you got pwned yourself.

;)

75Collectorator
Mar 2, 2009, 1:25am Top

73> It's a typo.

76BarkingMatt
Mar 2, 2009, 5:41am Top

77KorkyDay
Sep 21, 2010, 1:00am Top

Just joined. Great discussion.
However, no one has mentioned my favourite example: w in pwka. (Also pooka and poocah.)
It means ghost, and was prominent in the famous stage play "Harvey" by Mary Chase. Movie starred James Stewart.
Another w use from my Web publication
www.korky.ca/nfirc.html follows:
The word "nude" has long been tainted by people who exploit it for money, especially in a sexist way. But I realized that we have a real crisis when my innocent nude e-mail got caught in a "spam" filtre! So I decided that we must take action!
Nudists of the world arise! Dodge those spam filtres (and butterfly nets)!
Use new spellings for nude in e-mail, such as "n*de", "nood", and one I just coined: "nwd". The "w" in "nwd" has the same sound as the "oo" in "mood". A "w" is also used like that in a few other words, such as pwka (meaning ghost).
But some British might want to match their pronunciation by spelling it "nywd".
— 2010 September 17~ and 20.

I learned "sometimes Y and W" in S. California ~1955.
Now I live in Canada.

78BarkingMatt
Sep 21, 2010, 9:57am Top

I've always wondered if the Welsh use of "w" for "oo" ultimately comes from the Greek omega, which in minuscule (ω) sort of looks like w.

79Naren559
Sep 21, 2010, 11:46am Top

In Simon Callow's DVD "Dickens" (see at Amaxon.com The Mystery of Charles Dickens Starring Simon Callow (DVD - 2003) There is a court witness, whose name begins with a "W": the prosecuter asks him if he pronounces it with a "W" or with a "V". His reply "I would say its up to the speller; I have not had an ocasion to spell; If I did, I would spell it with a "Wee".

I would guess that this was an example of a German pronunciation (W pronunce as V) still practiced in early rural England.

80PaulFoley
Sep 21, 2010, 9:50pm Top

I remember some comedian making a joke about the game-show Jeopardy: the answer was "nine double-you", what was the question?

{"Do you spell your name with a 'V', Mr. Wagner?"}

I would guess that this was an example of a German pronunciation (W pronunce as V) still practiced in early rural England.

What do you mean by 'still'? Surely Englishmen speaking German still pronounce "w" like "v"...and I can't imagine why they'd do it when speaking English...

81skittles
Sep 21, 2010, 10:24pm Top

I pronounce it "vagner" and I'm an American speaking a German surname. I do the same when speaking a Spanish name if I know that they normally pronounce it in the Spanish. I do it out of respect. I do it to the best of my limited linguistic abilities.

I had a terrible time trying to pronounce "Jerry"! but I was forgiven for trying.

For me, it is a matter of respect & courtesy for another person. That's all.

82msladylib
Edited: Sep 22, 2010, 12:39am Top

> 18 I usually pronounce "vowel" as if the /w/ were indeed a vowel -- to rhyme with "growl," more or less. So I can see it; or should I say, hear it.

I cannot recall at all what I learned about sometimes-vowels, and I am not going to lose any sleep over it. It was so very long ago, my elementary school days. I got very good grades, was an excellent speller, so I am sure to have learned something.

83andyl
Sep 22, 2010, 5:25am Top

#79

In one English dialect (broad Norfolk) Vs were once pronounced as Ws. So vicar was pronounced wicker.

84Naren559
Sep 22, 2010, 6:19am Top

We subscribe to many Teaching Company lecture series. In the Seth Lerer (professor of linguistics at Stanford) lectures on the History of the English Language, he goes into great detail concerning the geographic spread of dialects in Britain; from the Catholic church Latin to the Viking (Norse speakers) raids and settlements to the Norman (French speakers) conquest, there were many influences on pronunciation as Britain evolved from a trilingual to a bilingual and finally to a "common jargon". The London dialect presently appears to be the elite (BBC) dialect. Professor Lerer also traces the geographic patterns of American English.

85andyl
Sep 22, 2010, 7:43am Top

#84 The London dialect presently appears to be the elite (BBC) dialect.

That is a huge simplification.

You seem to be confusing dialect and accent slightly. Also which London accent? There are a number. The BBC tended to favour RP but have far more regional voices now. Finally I don't think that RP is particularly associated with London, although there is some associative connection.

86PhaedraB
Sep 22, 2010, 12:39pm Top

> 83 So vicar was pronounced wicker.

Hmm... that makes him a wicker man? ;-)

87henkl
Edited: Sep 22, 2010, 1:45pm Top

As Daniel Jones described RP: "The pronunciation ... which I believe to be very usually heard in everyday speech in the families of Southern English people who have been educated at the public schools (note: 'Public schools' in the English sense, not in the American sense.')".

There is to RP thus a regional aspect, but also a class aspect.

About Londoners he says: "It is probably accurate to say that a majority of Londoners who have had a university education, use either this pronunciation or a pronunciation not differing greatly from it.

It sounds all pretty vague to me.

88andyl
Sep 22, 2010, 2:03pm Top

#87

You are right about the class aspect.

I don't think Jones is right when he says that a majority of Londoners who have had a university education use RP (or something akin to it) - well not if he is talking about 'right now'. Maybe in the recent past that was the case - but then the number of university graduates were a smaller percentage of the population and the cues such as accent were taken notice of more as class signifiers.

Also RP has changed quite a lot over the years - more so than some regional accents. You only have to listen to BBC Radio recordings from the past 70 years to see that.

89andyl
Sep 22, 2010, 2:03pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

90henkl
Sep 23, 2010, 9:11am Top

>88 andyl: I forgot to mention that the quotation of Jones is from the introduction to the 13th edition of his Everyman's English Pronouncing Dictionary (1967). So he is indeed describing the situation of over 40 years ago.
Another quote: "When I was in America in 1925, several American teachers (mostly from New York and the North-Eastern part of the United States) informed me, somewhat to my surprise, that RP or RP with slight modifications would be a suitable standard for teaching in American schools. This view is probably no longer held. In any case, I cannot think that any attempt to introduce this pronunciation into America is likely to meet with success."

91ed.pendragon
Sep 23, 2010, 1:29pm Top

Interesting comments about RP and BBC announcers. There is, I think, a tendency for continuity announcers (and presenters in general) to adopt a RP drawl while often retaining vowel sounds characteristic of one or other region, so that even an untrained ear can hear someone from the Midlands, Tyneside or the West Indies. This tendency to assimilate the drawl is not really a problem, I suppose, for the general public.

What mildly irritates me though is the recent and increasing UK tendency to pronounce the word "to" with a schwa inflection, resulting in a "tuh" or "ter" sound rather than a more traditional "too" sound ("I'm going ter read a book" instead of "I'm going tuu read..."). This may be the influence of Estuary English or perhaps even a modification of North American "tah" ("Gotta go" = "got tah go"). At least, that's my theory.

92ed.pendragon
Sep 25, 2010, 5:05am Top

I'd like to qualify what I wrote earlier: "tuh" seems mostly confined to use of the infinitive ("used tuh be", "want tuh go") but often becomes a "too" sound when implying direction ("going too the zoo"). But it doesn't seem consistent. I'll have to listen a lot more before being so pedantic in future!

93andyl
Sep 25, 2010, 5:54am Top

#92

Well I don't mind the to turning into "tuh" - after all that is customary practice for some accents. But the vowel sound becoming long is something I haven't noticed but would probably annoy me.

94CliffordDorset
Sep 28, 2010, 12:51pm Top

>78 BarkingMatt:

I always understood that Welsh and Ancient Greek were equivalent offshoots of Sanskrit, which adds an intriguing twist to the role of omega here.

95Reformer
Oct 11, 2010, 1:59pm Top

Thank you >78 BarkingMatt: BarkingMatt for posting the very question I just googled.
>94 CliffordDorset: CliffordDorset could you point to further layman's resources to track the welsh w / greek omega link back through to Sanskrit.

96PaulFoley
Oct 11, 2010, 9:42pm Top

Neither Welsh nor Greek are "offshoots of Sanskrit", and I'm sure the use of w in Welsh has no relation to greek ω...

97ed.pendragon
Edited: Oct 12, 2010, 3:24am Top

I suspect that Welsh "w" is just literally that, double-u, giving a long "u" sound (where English is inconsistent: cf 'do' and 'loo' or 'put' for the equivalent sound). Welsh "u" has been nabbed for (mostly) an "ee" sound -- typically as in Cymru, "Wales" -- and so wouldn't do. It's highly unlikely that the Greek alphabet (except for the Christian use of Alpha and Omega) affected written medieval Welsh, which like most European medieval languages survived using the Latin alphabet.

98henkl
Oct 12, 2010, 3:57am Top

>97 ed.pendragon: ...where English is inconsistent
Inconsistency is the consistent quality of English spelling, I think.

99jjwilson61
Oct 12, 2010, 9:40am Top

Where I come from 'put' is pronounced with a short u sound.

100ed.pendragon
Oct 12, 2010, 5:37pm Top

99: I'm guessing this may be Cumbria or thereabouts. Sorry if I appeared to disregard exceptions (or the norm, depending on your point of view!), but a henkl says, inconsistency may be the rule here.

101CliffordDorset
Oct 12, 2010, 5:50pm Top

>95 Reformer:

If I could do that I'd probably be up there chatting to all the other Sanskrit speakers!

My apologies for confusing everyone with my hearsay-based comment. I'm happy to plead total ignorance.

102Naren559
Oct 12, 2010, 10:12pm Top

According to Seth Lerer, in Teaching Company lecture series, the History of the English Language. The Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Scandinavian, etc.) are off-shoots of Indo-European, whose root language is Sanskrit.

103Mr.Durick
Oct 12, 2010, 10:33pm Top

The root language of the Indo-European languages is proto-Indo-European. Sanskrit is one of the Indo-European languages; the languages of which it is the root are the modern Indian languages such as Hindi. See the chart, for example, in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Robert

104dkathman
Oct 12, 2010, 11:54pm Top

Naren559: I think you must have misunderstood Lerer. The Germanic languages, including English and German, are one branch of Indo-European; the Indo-Iranian languages, including Sanskrit and modern languages such as Hindi and Farsi (the language of Iran), are another branch; and the various forms of Greek form yet another branch. Each of these branches is descended from Proto-Indo-European, as Mr.Durick said; none of them are "derived from" each other, but they are all related in that they have a common ancestor language. This ancestor language existed before writing, but linguists have been able to reconstruct what it must have been like from similarities in the various languages descended from it.

105vpfluke
Oct 13, 2010, 6:15pm Top

Sanskrit has more inflections than nearly all currently spoken Indo-European languages. It gives a nice window into the type of complexity that used to exist. We do not have proto-Celtic or proto-Germanic sources as old as early Sanskrit. It has a lot of written texts, not all from the same time period, so one can see the language changed over the centuries. The direct descendants of Sanskrit are mostly spoken in northern India, such as Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, et al (also Sinhalese spoken in Sri Lanka).

106PeggyMu
Oct 18, 2010, 3:47pm Top

I'm so glad to find out I'm not imaging what teachers in Redmond, Oregon schools taught in the mid-1950s. I've never met someone who ever heard of "y" and "w" sometimes being vowels.

107Reformer
Oct 26, 2010, 3:03pm Top

Thanks to all for the further thoughts on the omega thing and welsh/greek. Looks like a link is not easily demonstrated, despite the common ancestor.

108Muscogulus
Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 2:27pm Top

This discussion has made me think about the dual nature of W, which is more apparent perhaps in other languages and writing systems. The Arabic letter و (waw), can serve as either a consonant (w) or a vowel (u:), depending on its place in a word. Other Semitic languages have similar letters. Just to complicate things, though, Hebrew has the letter vav, where the vowel sound is still u: but the consonant value is v, not w. Hebrew, like German, doesn't have the w consonant.

Linguists do define the sound of initial W as a consonant, viz. the voiced labiovelar approximant.

109Muscogulus
Edited: Nov 3, 2010, 4:19pm Top

This thread also reminds me of how a North American Indian tribe came to be called "Osage" in English.

When French explorers first encountered this native people, they probably heard them call themselves "wažaže." They wrote it down in French as "Ouasage." (English speakers would probably have rendered it "Wasosh" or "Washoshee.")

Later, English speakers took over the French spelling (Ouasage), simplified it to Osage, and sounded it out englishly. So now the tribe's name in English is pronounced as if one were beginning a speech to a small evergreen perennial: "Oh! sage."

(The name has deteriorated further since then: I've heard a Kentucky gardener call the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) an "old sage orange.")

110CliffordDorset
Nov 27, 2010, 7:10am Top

Is this why 'Moskva' gets converted to 'Moscow'? Whether 'Moss - Coe', of 'Moss - Cow'.

111overthemoon
Nov 27, 2010, 7:33am Top

I've always found it strange that double-u is written vv; in French it is called double-v, and sometimes pronounced as a v (wagon, wisigoth), sometimes ou (wallon, watt).

112Mr.Durick
Nov 27, 2010, 2:28pm Top

Two u's to indicate lip rounding have been in English orthography for a very long time, perhaps, although I couldn't confirm it with a superficial search online, since u and v were treated the same. Two English v's together would be a double u.

I was taught in an early French class that w was not native to the French alphabet but was used for foreign words. Words from English had w as lip rounding; words from German had w as an English v sound.

Robert

113Muscogulus
Dec 15, 2010, 2:21pm Top

>111 overthemoon:
In some French missionary documents that record Algonquian words, the "w" sound is represented by a character that looks like the number 8. It represented "ou," a French approximation of the sound, with the "o" atop the "u" for brevity. The result looks like an 8 — which was convenient for printers when the manuscripts made it into print. Possibly it was preferred to "w" precisely because "w" can be pronounced either of two ways in French, the English way or the German way.

Just a thought: It may have mattered that the English in New England, just south of New France, were such implacable enemies that even their "w" may have been unwelcome to some loyal Frenchmen.

114PaulFoley
Dec 15, 2010, 8:04pm Top

113> ȣ is in Unicode (which inexplicably calls it "LATIN SMALL LETTER OU", even though it's a Greek ligature...)

115prosfilaes
Dec 15, 2010, 9:16pm Top

#114: Inexplicable in what sense? It is a letter of the extended Latin alphabet--it hangs out with a, b, c, etc., not α, β, γ, κτλ.

116PaulFoley
Edited: Dec 15, 2010, 9:28pm Top

in the sense that it's actually a Greek ligature (it's really ου, not ou...and not a letter in either case), and "hangs out with α, β, γ, κτλ, not a, b, c, etc." :)

117prosfilaes
Dec 15, 2010, 9:45pm Top

It's not a Greek ligature. The Greek ligature is unencoded; or rather encoded as ου or ου with the Zero Width Joiner control character in between. It's the letter used in some of the Algonquian languages derived from this Greek ligature. To quote Dictionnaire François—Onontagué:

Je t'aime, gonnonȣes. Tu m'aime, chkenonȣes.

Je l'aime, henonȣes. Tu l'aime, hêchènonȣes.

Il t'aime, heanonȣes. Il m'aime, hagnonȣes.

Il l'aime, hônonȣes.

Nous vous aimons, dedȣatatenonȣes.

Vous nous aimez, desȣatatenonȣes.

Ils s'aiment, dehontatenonȣes.

(I have converted the transcribed 8's to ȣ's; the original book clearly had the ligature, not the number.) That is the Latin letter, and definitely not the letter used in Greek. http://www.tlg.uci.edu/~opoudjis/unicode/other_ligatures.html#ou has some more information on the OU ligature and Unicode, including far more information about encoding Greek in Unicode than most people would ever want.

118overthemoon
Dec 16, 2010, 6:10am Top

117, just to be pedantic, it should me Tu m'aimes, Tu l'aimes.

119prosfilaes
Dec 16, 2010, 1:58pm Top

#118: In seventeenth century Canadian French? I don't know, I was just quoting.

120TomVeal
Feb 26, 2011, 12:26am Top

If I may add another data point, schools in Seattle in the early 1950's (or, at least, Briarcliff Elementary School on the top of Magnolia Bluff) taught "or sometimes y or w". No one ever explained "w" to us, but I'm confident that Miss Tonka would have known if I had thought to ask her.

121rretzler
Sep 3, 2011, 5:11pm Top

Wow - I'm really late to this post but I also remember sometimes y and w. I was in elementary school in the late 60's. I seem to recall that it was part of a song that we would sing??

I also recall that my mother had a set of records to teach phonetics that in my memory seem to be similar to "Hooked on Phonics". There were 4 advancing records and books to go along with them. I recall the first record having a way to remember the vowels as "Lady, I owe you some sugar" The a-e-i-o-u being the sounds from "Lady, I owe you." Not sure why that has stuck with me for 45 years...Does any one else remember this set of records?

122dubuquer1970
Oct 18, 2013, 6:11pm Top

Okay, I didn't take time to read all 120+ comments, but I attended elementary school in the Chicago area in the early 1950s. We did not learn the "sometimes y and w" rule, but I heard it from my father. I've always assumed it was passed down in his family due to Welsh ancestry, as in that language the letter w is literally pronounced as a "double u" sound, as in the Welsh word "cwm" cited above. The letter y is also used as a vowel in Welsh.

123Merryann
Jan 8, 1:21am Top

>20 EowynA:, In this most interesting subject that I just stumbled across, this post is the most delightful thing I have read in a very long time. From now on, I shall only use the vacwm cleaner.

124MyopicBookworm
Jan 8, 6:33pm Top

As far as I understand Welsh spelling, in Welsh it would actually be vacuwm.

125jed2264
May 19, 8:15pm Top

I grew up in Utah in the early 70's my 2nd grade teacher taught me "sometimes y and w" also. My other family members make fun at me when I say w acts as a vowel often. I found the perfect retort. I ask if the u in foul is a vowel, and it is always a yes. Then I ask if the w in the homophone fowl is a vowel. I think that the w in vowel is a may be a vowel.

Group: I Survived the Great Vowel Shift

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