Is letter Y in "Guyana" a vowel or a consonant?

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Despite not being perfect, I do have some basic knowledge about consonants and vowels. From textbooks and internet, I know that, for example, C, Q and X are always consonants; A, E, I, O, U are always vowels; and Y is ambiguous, it can be either of two.

Can anyone please indicate if Y in the word "Guyana" acts as a vowel or as a consonant and why? Guyana is the name of a country in South America. Thanks.

Alexander

Posted 2017-11-12T09:22:31.763

Reputation: 1 498

Answers

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Y is a vowel in Guyana.

The pronunciation of "Guyana" is /ɡʌɪˈanə/ (ODO). Like in the word "guy" or "guard", the "u" is silent. As in "guy" or "by", the "y" is an "eye"/"I" sound /ʌɪ/ or /aɪ/. So it is a vowel sound. (If you regard the "uy" jointly as making the /aɪ/ diphthong, I'd still argue that it should be considered a vowel.)

Where a sound is transcribed with /ɪ/, /aɪ/ etc these are vowels; /j/ would be the consonantal equivalent. (Some linguists transcribe /aj/ but no major dictionary appears to. In any event, most sources define a diphthong as a coming-together of two vowels.)

Addressing the counterargument

Some say they "hear" the "y" in "Guyana" as a consonant. There are two ways of interpreting this statement.

1. Perhaps they pronounce the first syllable with a monophthong, e.g. /ga/, and then they pronounce a second syllable starting /j/. But this isn't the pronunciation offered by dictionaries, which agree that the standard pronunciation rhymes the first syllable with "eye" and "try". In my answer I address the standard pronunciation.

2. A second possible interpretation is that they hear a /j/ after the "eye" diphthong. This can indeed often be heard (though it is not in the dictionary transcriptions), but you hear it too in "bionic", "Siamese", "iota", "triangle". The "y" cannot be making this /j/ sound; the "y" is making the "eye" sound; the /j/ comes in naturally between two vowels, as in the other examples I've cited.

NicholasCastagnola mentioned the variant spelling "Guiana". If the "y" in "Guyana" were considered a consonant, we'd have to consider the "i" in "Guiana" a consonant. And whereas I assume we're all agreed that the "y" in "by" or "buy" is a vowel, if we accept the above counterarguments we'd have to consider the "y" in "buying" and maybe even "trying" a consonant - so the "u" in "buying" and "Guyana" would have to make the diphthong all by itself, unless the "y" is pulling double-duty (as others might claim with respect to "trying").

Method

According to phoneticsontheweb:

Sometimes, the letter y is a consonant, and other times it is a vowel. The rule for telling the two apart is simple: The letter y is a consonant when it is the first letter of a syllable that has more than one letter. If y is anywhere else in the syllable, it is a vowel.

The word "Guyana" has three syllables, and the "y" is part of the first syllable, and not the start of it.

Yougowords

Yougowords cannot be considered a reliable counter-source. It claims that "Guyana" has "two syllables", which is incorrect. It also regards "by" as having "zero vowel". To be fair, there is a tradition that some people follow of restricting the definition of "vowel" to the five letters a, e, i, o, u. But the whole basis of the present discussion is that we are regarding "y" as a letter that sometimes makes a consonant sound ("yet") and sometimes a vowel sound ("by") and discussing which categorisation works better for the "y" in "Guyana".

Note

I am not sure that it makes scientific sense to classify letters (rather than sounds) into vowels or consonants. Presumably, by convention, we would classify the "u" in "guard" as a vowel, but since it's silent, it's making neither a vowel sound nor a consonant sound. It is worth noting that where the vowel/consonant distinction is used in English grammar rules, it is the sound that matters, not the spelling - so "unit" is always preceded by "a", for example, not "an".

rjpond

Posted 2017-11-12T09:22:31.763

Reputation: 8 564

Thanks for the answer. It is very smart and useful. Unfortunately, I am still quite bad at dividing words into syllables (English is not my native language). I was extremely surprised when I saw that Syria is Syr-i-a if we break it into syllables. – Alexander – 2017-11-12T12:24:13.713

I don't think this is a helpful answer. Your basic claim (that the /j/ is part of the first syllable rather than the onset of the second) is not universally held - it is not how I pronounce it, and @ashleedawg's answer indicates that I am not along. Secondly, if it is taken as part of the first syllable, it is unhelpful to say that "y" has a vowel, because the vowel sound is a diphthong written "uy" (as in 'buy', 'guy'), and you can't usefully split it up and say what part of the diphthong is written by what letter. – Colin Fine – 2017-11-12T13:17:41.237

Is it a diphthong written "uy" or is it written "y" with a silent "u" (cf "guard", "guest")? You can argue it either way. Even if you take "y" here to be part of the "uy", it still makes sense to consider the two letters as producing a vowel. Otherwise, are you going to say that the letter "i" in the word "I" is both vowel and consonant, on the grounds that some might pronounce /j/ at the end? (The whole notion of letters as being vowels or consonants is nonsensical.) Dictionaries transcribe the diphhthong as ending /ɪ/, though I agree that you can argue for a transcription ending /j/. – rjpond – 2017-11-12T15:42:18.270

I've updated my answer to address some of the points raised. – rjpond – 2017-11-13T08:27:43.557

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Y in Guyana is a consonant, simply since it sounds like a consonant.

You're not the first person to wonder this. :)

Here's proof and explanation.

ashleedawg

Posted 2017-11-12T09:22:31.763

Reputation: 1 138

Your link says Guyana has two syllables, which means to me that the 'y' must be a vowel. – The Photon – 2017-11-12T17:49:14.993

It's a consonant, but strangely, Guyana can also be spelled "Guiana" (its former spelling), which uses an "i". I'm curious as to whether people would consider the "i" in Guiana to be a vowel or consonant then. – Nick – 2017-11-12T20:08:19.187