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Can ‘w’ Be a Vowel in English: Letters and Graphemes

Can Be a Vowel in English: Letters and Graphemes

The question of whether <w> can be a vowel recently arose in regards to Teach a Student to Read. I know that the grapheme <w> can spell the phone [w] as in water, always, and wow. I was thus confused about the notion of <w> being a vowel.

My initial thought was that some sources do not use IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and instead used the letter <w> while representing some diphthongs. For example, in IPA, some English diphthongs are [ɑɪ] as in high, [ɔɪ] as in boy, [ɑʊ] as in sauce, [eɪ] as in bake, and [oʊ] as in go. I have seen some phonics materials use the letter <w> to indicate the pronunciation of some of these diphthongs. Instead of the standardized [ɑʊ] for the vowel sound in words like autumn and lawn, I have seen some materials use *[aw] to represent the [ɑʊ]. I have also seen *[au] used for [ɑʊ] as well as the baffling *[ä/ô/ȯ]. This confusing assortment is an excellent reason to adopt the standardized IPA as the way to transcribe pronunciation. I know a resource is spouting phonicky nonsense as soon as I see *[ä/ô/ȯ]. Use the standardized International Phonetic Alphabet!

After more consideration, I realized that the question of whether <w> can be a vowel was a result of a confusion about letters versus graphemes and digraphs. I googled “Is <w> a vowel in English?” The first result, from CK-12, claimed that, yes, indeed, <w> can be a vowel in English: “The letter <w> is usually a consonant. It is a vowel only when it teams up with an <a>, <e>, or <o> to spell a single sound—as in the words draw, few, and low. So the letter <w> is a vowel only in the two-letter teams <aw>, <ew>, and <ow>. Everywhere else <w> is a consonant.”

Is <w> a vowel in English? CK-12 Result

To clear up the confusion, we must first understand the difference between letters and graphemes. A letter is a character or symbol in an alphabet. Letters are the raw materials for making graphemes (and markers). English has 26 letters, which most children learn by singing “The Alphabet Song”: “A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y and Z. Now I know my ABCs. Next time won’t you sing with me.”

A grapheme is the “smallest meaningful contrastive unit in a writing system.” Graphemes are one, two, or three written letters that spell phone(mes). (A phone is a distinct speech sound. Phones come out of your mouth. Phones are enclosed in square brackets. A phoneme is a perceptually distinct unit of sound in a specific language that distinguishes one word from another. Phonemes are in your head. Phonemes are enclosed in slashes.)

Letters form graphemes. Graphemes spell sounds. Some graphemes consist of one letter. For example, the grapheme <t> consists of the letter t. While most letters also form graphemes, not all do so equally. For example, the grapheme <q> is not a native English grapheme. While a handful of borrowed words such as qat and Iraq contain the <q> grapheme, the letter q usually forms the digraph <qu> with the letter u. Digraphs consist of two letters that spell one sound. The digraph <sh>, which consists of the letters s and h, can spell [ʃ]. Trigraphs consist of three letters that spell one sound. The trigraph <tch>, which consists of the letters t, c, and h, can spell [t͡ʃ].

There are also both vowel and consonant letters and vowel and consonant graphemes. The English vowel letters are a, e, i, o, u, and usually y. (The “consonantal” [j] spelled by <y> is a glide. Glides are sometimes referred to as semivowels. On the vowel-consonant continuum, glides are closer to the vowel side.) All other letters are consonant letters. Vowel graphemes spell vowel sounds. Vowel graphemes include, but are not limited to <a>, <e>, <i>, <o>, <u>, <y>, <ai>, <ee>, <aw>, <ew>, <ow>, <igh>, and <eau>. Consonant graphemes spell consonant sounds. Consonant graphemes include, but are not limited to <b>, <ck>, <dg>, <gu>, <kn>, <qu>, <wh>, <wr>, <rrh>, and <ugh>. Notice that vowel graphemes can contain consonant letters and consonant graphemes can contain vowel letters. Thus, not confusing letters with graphemes with phone(mes) is of utmost importance.

The grapheme <w> cannot and does not spell a vowel sound in English. The grapheme <w>, which consists of the consonant letter w, spells the consonant sound [w]. However, like [j], [w] is also a glide. (More specifically, [j] is a palatal glide and [w] is a bilabial glide.) Again, on the vowel-consonant continuum, glides are closer to the vowel end than the consonant end. Glides are more vowel-like consonants but are consonants. The grapheme <w> spells a consonant sound as in wacky wordsmith.

However, the letter w helps form some vowel graphemes. For example, the vowel graphemes <aw> can spell [ɑ]/[ɔ], <ew> can spell [u] and [ju], and <ow> can spell [oʊ] and [ɑʊ]. The letter w does not spell the vowel sound. Instead, the letter w forms a vowel digraph with another letter, specifically the letters a, e, and o. Again, understanding the difference between letters and graphemes is of utmost importance. Both vowels and consonant letters can work together to form vowel graphemes. Vowel graphemes spell vowel sounds. So, while the consonant letter w helps form three vowel graphemes in English, the grapheme <w> does not spell a vowel sound. The letter w is also not a vowel letter.

So, can <w> be a vowel in English? No. The letter w is a consonant letter. The grapheme <w> is a consonant grapheme that spells [w]. But the consonant w can combine with the vowel letters a, e, and o to form the vowel digraphs <aw>, <ew>, and <ow>. But neither the letter w nor the grapheme <w> are vowels.

References

Cooke, G. (n.d.). LEX Grapheme Deck. Linguist Educator Exchange Store. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://linguisteducatorexchange.com/lex-store/lex-grapheme-deck/
CK-12 Foundation. (n.d.). W as a Vowel or Consonant. CK-12 Spelling. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.ck12.org/spelling/w-a-consonant-that-can-act-as-a-vowel/lesson/w-as-a-vowel-or-consonant/
Kim, A. (2019, September 4). What Are Diphthongs? What Are Some Ideas for Teaching Diphthongs? Learning at the Primary Pond. https://learningattheprimarypond.com/blog/what-are-diphthongs-what-are-some-ideas-for-teaching-diphthongs/
Logic of English. (n.d.). AU and AW Phonograms. Logic of English Support Center. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://support.logicofenglish.com/hc/en-us/articles/4708437756187-AU-and-AW-Phonograms
Twinkl. (n.d.). Or, Au, Aw Which Is the Correct Spelling? Word Cards. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.twinkl.com/resource/t-l-2419-or-au-aw-which-is-the-correct-spelling-word-cards

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