Vowels: What They Are and Why We Have Them

Vowels in English! Though we may not think of them beyond their role in spelling out a word, the 26 letters of the English alphabet are symbols representing speech sounds. Letters help to tell the reader how a word is articulated. Speech sounds are broken into two different types, vowels and consonants. Whether a sound is a vowel or a consonant depends on how it is articulated.

As humans speak, air flows through the vocal cords and is manipulated to pronounce the sounds of each word. Sounds can be altered within the vocal cord itself, as well as in the mouth with the use of the tongue, lips, and teeth. Speech sounds without any blockage of airflow are considered vowels, while all other are consonants.


What Is A Vowel?

Discussing letters in relation to airflow may seem odd, but it’s actually a straightforward way to understand a much more complex concept in linguistics. When we speak, we are pronouncing speech sounds represented by each letter. Air flows through our vocal cords and is constricted as we articulate. If a speech sound is pronounced without any blockage of the vocal cords, it is considered a vowel. The five standard vowels are A, E, I, O, and U. These are always vowel sounds regardless of the word. When articulated, the way in which the air flows through the vocal cords is open, without any blockage. This open airflow is what differentiates vowels from consonants.

Take an example:

The letter Y can function as a vowel or a consonant depending on the word it’s in. Try saying the words “may,” “silly,” and “cry” out loud. You will notice that the speech sounds represented by the letter Y are fully open. There is no blockage of the vocal cords. In these words, Y is a vowel. Now try saying the words “yard” and “canyon.” In these cases, the letter Y represents a sound that requires subtle manipulation of the mouth to partly block airflow, therefore Y is a consonant. In general, most uses of the letter Y are vowels. When Y is a consonant, it is typically at the beginning of a word or syllable.

Vowels Versus Consonants

Unlike vowels, consonants involve blockage or constriction of airflow when they are articulated. This can be partial blockage or complete closure of the vocal cords. As with the examples where Y is a consonant, all letters that are consonants can be easily determined by saying them out loud. This will make it clear what speech sound involves blockage of airflow. Take, for example, the letter M. In order to articulate the speech sound represented by M, air flows through the vocal cords and is then blocked completely by the lips. If you’re ever unsure whether a letter is a vowel or a consonant, saying it out loud will help.

You may notice that there are far more vowel sounds than represented by A, E, I, O, U, and Y. As with consonants, individual vowels can only do so much on their own. Vowels can make different pitches, lengths, and tones. Rather than create additional letters for each speech sound, which would result in an alphabet much larger than our own, the English language has vowel digraphs and vowel teams that combine to form new speech sounds. With vowels, this often occurs with pairs of the same letter, like in the words “book,” and “smooth.” We learn through school and practice that these are articulated as one long vowel sound rather than two individual O sounds. The same goes for different vowels paired together. In the word “cause,” for example, the letters A and U blend to form a new speech sound different from the sounds of the two individual letters. New vowel sounds can even be created with more than two letters, as in the word “beauty.” As with the vowel pairs, the trio of EAU in “beauty” forms a completely new vowel sound.

What Are Vowels For?

Why We have Vowels

With all of the clear distinctions between vowels and consonants, you might wonder what vowels are actually used for. Why do we bother making the distinction? The main reason that vowels exist is to help break words down into syllables. Syllables are smaller units of pronunciation that divide a word and help with articulation and spelling. As a rule, all syllables have one vowel sound. In most cases, this means all syllables have to have a vowel. Dividing words into syllables is an important tool in learning to read, write, and pronounce words. Vowels are necessary to achieve this.

While all syllables are required to have a vowel sound, there are some special cases where no vowel itself is present. This can happen in words that do not have any vowels at all. There are a few abbreviations that are now considered words, like “Dr.” and “TV,” which only consist of consonants. Similarly, many onomatopoeia words, which spell out the sounds they represent, do not have any vowels. Examples of these include “hmm,” “shh,” “psst,” and “pfft.”

Special Cases

In addition to words that do not have any vowels, there are some special cases in which a consonant becomes a vowel. Most people know that Y can be a vowel or a consonant. It may be more surprising to hear that the letter W can also switch over from consonant to vowel. When letters jump the boundaries between consonant and vowel, they are called semivowels or glides. These are speech sounds that have characteristics of vowels and consonants. The letter W functions this way when it is at the beginning of a word followed by a vowel, like in “would,” “walk,” and “wow.” This speech sound was actually once a different symbol altogether called a wynn and it’s part of the reason why the letter W is pronounced as “double U,” and not “double V.”

In Welsh, the letter W is commonly used as a vowel. There are also a few Welsh words that are used in the English language. These are the words “cwm” and “crwth,” in which the W speech sounds like OO. Cwm is the name of a rounded landform also called a corrie or cirque. A crwth is a Celtic instrument like a violin. These are special situations in which consonants become vowels.

It may seem complicated to know when a letter is a vowel or a consonant, but the easiest test is to try saying a word out loud. You’ll find that vowels and consonants are not as complex as they may seem. The more you know about the English language, the more you’ll realize how it was designed to help us read, write, and speak with fluency.

Vowels Infographic