English Language Blog

Vowel sounds: Is the letter y a vowel? Posted by on Oct 13, 2012 in English Language

If you ask an elementary school child who speaks English to tell you the vowels they will likely say “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.”  This is what I was taught about vowels as a child, it is what I have taught my ESL students, and it is still what children who are learning English as their native language are taught in school.  But how can ‘y’ sometimes be a vowel and sometimes not?

The simplest explanation I can give to this question requires an understanding of the difference between a consonant and a vowel.  First of all, vowels are produced from the vocal cords (in the throat) with minimal shaping of the air in the mouth while it is expelled with a breath.  Thus making a vowel requires shaping air into sound.  Consonant sounds are created through the obstruction or channeling of the air by the lips, teeth, tongue, throat, or nasal passage as it is expelled in a breath.  Thus making a consonant requires stopping air in some way as it moves out of the mouth.

The single letter ‘y’ represents many different sounds (like many letters in English) and therefore sometimes it represents a sound that is a vowel sound (unobstructed air) and sometimes it represents a sound that is a consonant (obstructed air).  That is why the letter ‘y’ sometimes acts as a vowel and sometimes acts as a consonant.  Technically it is not a vowel, there are only five vowels in English, but like I said, sometimes the letter “acts like” a vowel. The vowels we have already reviewed in this series (a, e, i, o, u) are exclusively and only vowels and never make consonant sounds, but the letter ‘y’ is different, which is why we are looking at it here today.

Here are some examples to help clarify what I explained above.

the letter ‘y’ when it makes a vowel sound
myth (short i sound)
hymn (short i sound)
rhythm (short i sound)
mystery (short i then long e sound)
my (long i sound)
cycle (long i sound)
baby (long e sound)
hairy (long e sound)
sky (long i sound)

the letter ‘y’ when it makes a consonant sound (this occurs only when ‘y’ appears at the start of a syllable where there is another vowel)

Special notes:
•    The letter ‘y’ is more often used as a vowel than a consonant
•    When the letter ‘y’ is used as a vowel it is often interchangeable with the various sounds of the letters ‘i’ and ‘e’

To conclude this look at the vowel sounds in English, here is link to a webpage where you can hear the short and long vowels sounds for the letters a, e, i, o, u.
Link:  http://rbeaudoin333.homestead.com/files/short_vowels/vowelsounds_1.html

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.


  1. sk8*rkid:

    y is not a vowel, even though it is used the the word gym for example.

    • gabriele:

      @sk8*rkid The reason why the letter ‘y’ represents a vowel, and is used as a vowel in words like ‘gym’ is what this post is all about!
      Did the explanation of phenomena make sense to you?

  2. Tom Desmond:

    I am also an ESL teacher in Woodbridge, Va. It seems that y is a consonant only when it follows a. Examples for vowels are an orange, an apple. For consonants a dog, a cat. The letter y in this situation is a consonant.