Y (named wye //, plural wyes) is the 25th and next-to-last letter in the modern English alphabet and the ISO basic Latin alphabet. In the English writing system it represents either a vowel or a consonant.
In Latin, Y was named I graeca, since the classical Greek sound /y/, similar to modern German ü or French u, was not a native sound for Latin speakers, and the letter was initially only used to spell foreign words. This history has led to the standard modern names of the letter in Romance languages, — in Galician i grego, in Catalan i grega, in French and Romanian i grec — all meaning "Greek I". The names igrek in Polish and i gờ-rét in Vietnamese are both phonetic borrowings of the French name. In Dutch, both Griekse ij and i-grec are used. In Spanish, Y is also called i griega; however, in the twentieth century the shorter name ye was proposed and was officially recognized as its name in 2010 by the Real Academia Española, although its original name is still accepted. The original Greek name υ ψιλον (upsilon) has also been adapted into several modern languages: in German, for example, it is called Ypsilon, and in Italian the name is ipsilon or i greca. In Portuguese, both names are used (ípsilon and i grego).
Old English borrowed Latin Y to write the native Old English sound /y/ (previously written with the rune yr ᚣ). The name of the letter may be related to 'ui' (or 'vi') in various medieval languages; in Middle English it was 'wi' /wiː/, which through the Great Vowel Shift became the Modern English 'wy' /waɪ/.
|Phoenician||Greek||Latin||English (approximate times of changes)|
|V →||U →||V/U/UU →||V/U/W|
|Y →||Y (vowel /y/) →||Y (vowel /i/) →||Y (vowels)|
|G →||Ȝ (consonantal /g/ or /ɣ/) →||G →|
|consonantal Y /j/ →||Y (consonant)|
The oldest direct ancestor of English letter Y was the Semitic letter waw, from which also come F, U, V, and W. See F for details. The Greek and Latin alphabets developed from the Phoenician form of this early alphabet. In Modern English, there is also some historical influence from the old English letter yogh (Ȝȝ), which developed from Semitic gimel, as shown below.
The letter Y first appeared in this form as the capital of the Greek letter upsilon. The Romans first borrowed a form of upsilon as the single letter V, representing both the vowel sound /u/ and the consonant /w/. (In modern ways of writing Latin, V is typically written as U, for a vowel, or V for the consonant.) However, this first loaning of upsilon into Latin is not the source of Modern English Y.
The usage of the Greek Y form of upsilon as opposed to U, V, or W, dates back to the Latin of the first century BC, when upsilon was introduced a second time, this time with its "foot" to distinguish it. It was used to transcribe loanwords from the prestigious Attic dialect of Greek, which had the non-Latin sound /y/, as found in modern French cru (raw), or German grün (green). Because it was not a native sound of Latin, it was usually pronounced /u/ or /i/. The latter pronunciation was the most common in the Classical period and was used by most people except Greek educated ones.
The letter was also used for other languages with a /y/ sound. Some words of Italic origin were re-spelled with a 'y': Latin silva ('forest') was commonly spelled sylva, in analogy with the Greek cognate and synonym ὕλη.
The Roman Emperor Claudius proposed introducing a new letter into the Latin alphabet to transcribe the so-called sonus medius (a short vowel before labial consonants), which in inscriptions was sometimes used for Greek upsilon instead.
In Old English there was a native /y/ sound, and so all of Latin U, Y and I were used to represent distinct vowels. But by the time of Middle English, /y/ had lost its roundedness and became identical to I (/iː/ and /ɪ/). Therefore, many words that originally had I were spelled with Y, and vice versa.
Likewise, Modern English vocalic Y is pronounced identically to the letter I. But Modern English uses it in only certain places, unlike Middle and early Modern English. It has three uses: for upsilon in Greek loan-words (system: Greek σύστημα), at the end of a word (rye, city; compare cities, where S is final), and in place of I before the ending -ing (dy-ing, justify-ing).
As a consonant in English, Y is normally a palatal approximant, /j/ (year, German Jahr). This is possibly influenced by the Middle English letter yogh (Ȝȝ), which represented /j/. (Yogh's other sound, /ɣ/, came to be written gh in Middle English.)
Confusion in writing with the letter thorn
When printing was introduced to Great Britain, Caxton and other English printers used Y in place of Þ (thorn: Modern English th), which did not exist in continental typefaces. From this convention comes the spelling of the as ye in the mock archaism Ye Olde Shoppe. But in spite of the spelling, pronunciation was the same as for modern the (stressed /ðiː/, unstressed /ðə/). Ye (/jiː/) is purely a modern spelling pronunciation.
Use in writing systems
As English pronunciation: /j/:
- at the beginning of a word as in yes
As non-syllabic [ɪ]:
- after some vowels in diphthongs, as in play, grey, boy
As English pronunciation: /i/:
- without stress at the end of multi-syllable word as in baby, happy
- used in combination with e at the end of words, as in money, key
As English pronunciation: /ɪ/:
- in a closed syllable without stress and with stress as in myth, system, gymnastics
- in a closed syllable under stress as in typical, lyric
- in an open syllable without stress as in physique, pyjamas
As English pronunciation: /aɪ/:
- under stress in an open syllable as in my, type, rye, lying, pyre, tyre, typhoon
- in a stressed open syllable as in hyphen, cycle, cylon
- in the following words: ally, hypothesis, psychology
- combining with ⟨r⟩ as English pronunciation: /ɜ/ under stress (like ⟨i⟩ in bird), as in myrtle, myrrh
- as English pronunciation: /ə/ (schwa) in words like martyr
⟨y⟩ represents the sounds /y/ or /ʏ/ in the Scandinavian languages. It can never be a consonant (except for loanwords). In Norwegian it forms part of the diphthong ⟨øy⟩, which in Swedish is spelled ⟨öj⟩, and ⟨øj⟩ (formerly ⟨øi⟩) in Danish.
In Dutch, it usually represents /i/. It may sometimes be left out of the Dutch alphabet and replaced with the ⟨ij⟩ digraph. In addition, ⟨y⟩ and ⟨ÿ⟩ are occasionally used instead of Dutch ⟨IJ⟩ and ⟨ij⟩, albeit very rarely.
In German, the pronunciation /yː/ has taken hold since the 19th century in classical loanwords – for instance in words like typisch /ˈtyːpɪʃ/ 'typical', Hyäne, Hysterie, mysteriös, Syndrom, System, Typ. It is also used for the sound /j/ in loanwords, such as Yacht (variation spelling: Jacht), Yak, Yeti; however, e.g. yo-yo is spelled "Jo-Jo" in German, and yoghurt/yogurt/yoghourt "Jog(h)urt" [mostly spelled with h]). The letter ⟨y⟩ is also used in many geographical names, e.g. Bayern Bavaria, Ägypten Egypt, Libyen Libya, Paraguay, Syrien Syria, Uruguay, Zypern Cyprus (but: Jemen Yemen, Jugoslawien Yugoslavia). Especially in German names, the pronunciations /iː/ or /ɪ/ occur as well – for instance in the name Meyer, where it serves as a variant of ⟨i⟩, cf. Meier, another common spelling of the name.
A ⟨y⟩ that derives from the ⟨ij⟩ ligature occurs in the Afrikaans language, a descendant of Dutch, and in Alemannic German names. In Afrikaans, it denotes the diphthong [ɛi]. In Alemannic German names, it denotes long /iː/, for instance in Schnyder [ˈʃniːdər] or Schwyz [ˈʃʋiːts] – the cognate non-Alemannic German names Schneider [ˈʃnaɪdər] or Schweiz [ʃʋaɪts] have the diphthong /aɪ/ that developed from long /iː/.
The Icelandic writing system uses ⟨y⟩ for /ɪ/ and ⟨ý⟩ for /i/. In Faroese, ⟨y⟩ is always pronounced /i/. In both languages, it can also form part of diphthongs such as ⟨ey⟩ (in both languages) and ⟨oy⟩ (Faroese only).
In French orthography, ⟨y⟩ is pronounced as [i] when a vowel (as in the words cycle, y) and as [j] as a consonant (as in yeux, voyez). It alternates orthographically with ⟨i⟩ in the conjugations of some verbs, indicating a [j] sound. In most cases when ⟨y⟩ follows a vowel, it modifies the pronunciation of the vowel: ⟨ay⟩ [ɛ], ⟨oy⟩ [wa], ⟨uy⟩ [ɥi]. The letter ⟨y⟩ has double function (modifying the vowel and [j] or [i]) in the words payer, balayer, moyen, essuyer, pays, etc., but in some words it has only a single function: [j] in bayer, mayonnaise, coyote; modifying the vowel at the end of proper names like Chardonnay and Fourcroy. In French ⟨y⟩ can have a diaresis (tréma) as in Moÿ-de-l'Aisne.
In the Spanish language, ⟨y⟩ was used as a word-initial form of ⟨i⟩ that was more visible. (German has used ⟨j⟩ in a similar way.) Hence el yugo y las flechas was a symbol sharing the initials of Isabella I of Castille (Ysabel) and Ferdinand II of Aragon. This spelling was reformed by the Royal Spanish Academy and currently is only found in proper names spelled archaically, such as Ybarra or CYII, the symbol of the Canal de Isabel II. Appearing alone as a word, the letter ⟨y⟩ is a grammatical conjunction with the meaning "and" in Spanish and is pronounced /i/. As a consonant, ⟨y⟩ represents [ʝ] in Spanish. The letter is called i/y griega, literally meaning "Greek I", after the Greek letter ypsilon, or ye.
In Portuguese, ⟨y⟩ (called ípsilon in Brazil, both ípsilon or i grego in Portugal) was, together with ⟨k⟩ and ⟨w⟩, recently re-introduced as the 25th letter, and 19th consonant, of the Portuguese alphabet, in consequence of the Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement of 1990. It is mostly used in loanwords from English, Japanese, Spanish, Russian and Hebrew. Loanwords in general, primarily gallicisms in both varieties, are more common in Brazilian Portuguese than in European Portuguese. It was always common for Brazilians to stylize Tupi-influenced names of their children with the letter (which is present in most Romanizations of Old Tupi) e.g. Guaracy, Jandyra, Mayara – though placenames and loanwords derived from indigenous origins had the letter substituted for ⟨i⟩ over time e.g. Nictheroy became Niterói. Usual pronunciations are /i/, [j], [ɪ] and /ɨ/ (the two latter ones are inexistent in European and Brazilian Portuguese varieties respectively, being both substituted by /i/ in other dialects). The letters ⟨i⟩ and ⟨y⟩ are regarded as phonemically not dissimilar, though the first corresponds to a vowel and the latter to a consonant, and both can correspond to a semivowel depending on its place in a word.
Italian, too, has ⟨y⟩ (ipsilon) in a small number of loanwords.
In Lithuanian ⟨y⟩ is the 15th letter and is a vowel. It is called the long i and is pronounced /iː/ like in English see.
When used as a vowel in Vietnamese, the letter ⟨y⟩ represents the sound /i/; when it is a monophthong, it is functionally equivalent to the Vietnamese letter ⟨i⟩. Thus, Mỹ Lai does not rhyme but mỳ Lee does.[clarification needed] There have been efforts to replace all such uses with ⟨y⟩ altogether, but they have been largely unsuccessful. As a consonant, it represents the palatal approximant. The capital letter ⟨Y⟩ is also used in Vietnamese as a given name.
In Malagasy, the letter ⟨y⟩ represents the final variation of /ɨ/.
In Japan, Ⓨ is a symbol used for resale price maintenance.
- 𐤅: Semitic letter Waw, from which the following symbols originally derive
- Υ υ : Greek letter Upsilon, from which Y derives
- У у : Cyrillic letter U, which also derives from Upsilon
- Ү ү : Cyrillic letter Ue (or straight U)
- Ұ ұ : Kazakh Short U
- ¥ : Yen sign
- Y with diacritics: Ý ý Ỳ ỳ Ŷ ŷ Ÿ ÿ Ỹ ỹ Ẏ ẏ Ỵ ỵ Ɏ ɏ Ƴ ƴ
|Unicode name||LATIN CAPITAL LETTER Y||LATIN SMALL LETTER Y|
|Numeric character reference||Y||Y||y||y|
- 1 Also for encodings based on ASCII, including the DOS, Windows, ISO-8859 and Macintosh families of encodings.
On German typewriter- and computer keyboards (in comparison to those used in UK/US), the positions of the letters Y and Z are swapped. (In German, Y is used only in loanwords and names.)
- Also spelled wy.
- "Y", Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989); Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (1993); "wy", op. cit.
- Real Academia Española, ed. (2010). "Propuesta de un solo nombre para cada una de las letras del abecedario".
- Oxford English Dictionary Second edition, 1989; online version June 2011, s.v. 'sylva'
- The Syllable: Views and Facts. p. 289. ISBN 3-11-016274-1.
- Burchfield, R.W., ed. (1996), "Ye", The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 860