Once you get past rote memorization and singing along to Mozart’s most nototious composition, most likely the first thing you learn about the English alphabet is that it has 21 consonants and 5 vowels.
This is a blatant lie.
Even though some will hedge their bets, implying that one or more letters are actually dual-purpose and “sometimes” act as vowels, the hard fact is that there are really only 19 consonants in English, and seven vowels: A, E, I, O, U, W, and Y.
The Sounds of W and Y
While some folks will insist that W and Y are usually consonants, the fact is that what we think of as the consonantal qualities of those two letters actually comes down to the laziness of the average English speaker; W and Y are vowels and it is slurring of their sounds that makes English speakers think they are consonants. W is a vowel representing the sound usually written in English as “oo” and Y is a vowel equivalent to the Greek letter upsilon, roughly equivalent to the long sound of the letter “E.”
Don’t believe me? Let’s try a few examples.
We’ll start with W, since that’s the one people have the hardest time with. Many people think that it’s only a vowel in Welsh words, like “cwm” or “crwth.” Yes, in those cases W’s status as a vowel is easy to see. But they are not the exception. In every case, W is pronounced like “ooh.” That’s because it is, as its name tells us up front, a double “U.”
Now let’s consider the word “water.” Say it aloud. Now consider it spelled “uater.” Say that word aloud. Now say it quickly. Now quicker. You will find the “u” slurring along with the “a” sound to create what you’ve come to think of as the “w” sound. It also works with two “o’s” representing the u sound.
It works for any word starting with W: wash (ooash), wet (ooet), west (ooest — in fact, the Spanish word is oeste pronounced the same way we say it with an “e” on the end). In every case where W starts a word, it’s an “oo” sound which blends in with the following vowel. It’s only because English tongues have gotten so lazy that we think of this slurring as a distinct consonant.
And when W is in the middle of a word? It’s usually forming a diphthong with another vowel. “Saw,” “sow,” “power,” “sewing,” “Hawthorne.” In each case the W is a part of a diphthong, not a distinctive sound.
Now let’s try Y.
Part of the confusion comes from the fact that both letters are relative newcomers to the Alphabet. The Romans called Y “Greek I,” and in Castilian Spanish it’s still called “i griega” as a result. And every word where we call Y a consonant, it’s actually an “i” sound at the beginning of the word that gets a little slurred: “ies,” “iak,” “iacht,” “ioke,” “iouth, “iankee doodle,” “she loves you ieah ieah ieah.”
So it’s time we finally admitted the basic fact of the matter. English has seven vowels: “A, E, I, O, U, W, and Y.” No “and sometimes” needed. Period.