On this “Word Wednesday” we will start with something even more basic than words – the things that make up words, namely, vowels and consonants. Ever wondered where these words come from and why they mean what they do? And why “y” is sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant? Then read on!
What prompts me to do this is the “Today I Found Out” (feed your brain!) feature from yesterday, April 22, 2014.
Here’s the beginning of the article (and a few “extra facts” from the end of it); read the rest at the link above.
You already know that vowels in the English alphabet are a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y, while the rest of the letters are called consonants. But did you ever ask yourself why the letters were divided into two separate groups?
Basically, a vowel is a sound that is made with the mouth and throat not closing at any point. In contrast, a consonant is a sound that is made with the air stopping once or more during the vocalization. That means that at some point, the sound is stopped by your teeth, tongue, lips, or constriction of the vocal cords.
The difference explains why “y” is only “sometimes” a vowel. Depending on which word “y” is being used in, it can represent different sounds. In words like “myth” or “hymn,” the letter takes on a sound like a short “i” and the mouth and throat don’t close when the sound is made. However, in words like “beyond,” it acts as a bridge between the “e” and the “o,” and there is some partial closure, making “y” a consonant.
- The word “vowel” comes from the Latin word vox, which means “voice.” The word “consonant” also has a Latin root, con sonare, which means “with sound.”
- Ever wonder why “w” is pronounced “double-u” and not “double-v?” The Roman Latin alphabet was adapted to be used for Old English. Old English had a “w” sound, but back then the alphabet didn’t have a “w.” Instead, the “v” sound was pretty close, so words that required a “w” were often represented by a “v” instead. In the 7th century, scribes started using “uu” to represent the “w” sound, which is how it got its name. However, printers used to use “vv” to represent the sound, which is how it got its shape.