“Why is the only question that bothers people enough to have an entire letter of the alphabet named after it. The alphabet does not go ‘A, B, C, D, What?, When?, How?’ but it does go ‘V, W, X, Why? Z.’” – Douglas Adams

You probably saw this coming. Since I wrote pieces about X and Z, you astutely wondered, “Hey, Word Guy, why did you skip Y?” The truth is I don’t know Y . . . er, why. So here at last is that column about Y that you’ve probably been expecting.

A good place to start is with a very quick look at where the penultimate letter of our alphabet came from. Since the entire saga of Y’s evolution is far too long to go into here, I’ll just jump to the fact that it comes to us from the Greek letter upsilon (whose uppercase looks exactly like our Y) via the Latin alphabet.

As we saw earlier with the letter X, Y serves us well in the field of mathematics by lending itself to the name of the vertical axis of a Cartesian coordinate system as well as points along that axis, which are the dependent variables. Why? Seems mathematical visionary Rene Descartes thought using X and Y to describe variables was a lot easier than always using the terms “abscissa” and “ordinate.”

The website Yottamind.com (really) also notes that, since Y is the 25th letter of our alphabet, its Pythagorean reduction is a 7 (2+5=7), and 7 represents hidden meaning, hidden wisdom and life’s mysteries.

The site goes on to explain the meanings of the parts of Y, at least when it is uppercase and typed in Times New Roman (Y). The letter’s wide, vertical base, according to the website, represents youth while its wide left diagonal stands for the path to things that are material and earthly. The Y’s narrow right diagonal, on the other hand, represents the path that leads to virtue and spirituality.


Kinda makes you look at Y with new respect, doesn’t it?

OK, now let’s switch to looking at that burning question that’s been bothering all of us (bothering me, at least) since we were young schoolchildren still learning how to tie our shoelaces: “Is Y a consonant or a vowel?”

The answer to that burning question is “Yes,” because it’s both. In fact, that old saw about vowels being “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y” is probably more wrong than right. You see the letter Y – which is technically classified as a “semivowel” – is more commonly pronounced as a vowel than as a consonant. So repeat after me: “A,E, I, O, U and usually Y.”

For example, in most cases Y only represents a consonant — from the Latin “consonare” (to sound together) — when it begins a word (such as: yard, year or young) or a syllable (lawyer, beyond).

On the other hand, Y represents a vowel — from the Latin “vocalis” (vocal) — when it’s used in a word that has no other vowel (such as: gym, sly and myth), and when used at the end of a syllable (acrylic, bicycle), and at the end of a word, where it can make the sound of either a long E (early, twenty), or a long I (July, fly, sky).

And if that’s not enough, the versatile Y is also a vowel when it shows up in the middle of a syllable (system, typical, pyramid).

While it’s just a coincidence that I wrote about Y this week (I’d been planning to for a while), it somehow seems appropriate to write about a letter that’s pronounced “why,” since that’s the big question on everybody’s mind right now. Lewiston Strong.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: