John Larrysson's Column: Pronouncing The Letter Y At The Front Of A Word

The letter Y at the front of a word stands for the Y-consonant-sound (IPA: /j/). In Old and Middle English there used to be a separate letter for the Y-consonant-sound Ȝ, known as yogh. This letter was mostly dropped during the time the Norman French ruled England. They used the letter Y (and sometimes GH) to replace the English Ȝ. 

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When spelled with the letter Y, the Y-consonant-sound is normally found at the beginning of words. Most words beginning with Y are from Old English, for example: yard, yarn, yawn, year, yearn, yeast, yell, yellow, yelp, yes, yesterday, yet, yield, yoke, yonder, yolk, you, your, young and youth. There are a few exceptions borrowed from other languages, including yam (Portuguese-African), yoga (Hindi) and yoghurt (Turkish). A vowel normally follows the consonant Y. 

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The Y-consonant-sound is found in the English long U sound /ju/. A long U is a 2-sound vowel with a Y-consonant-sound followed by a long OO sound /u/ (or /u:/). The long U sound can be spelt with an initial U or the digraphs UE, EW and UU. (See articles on Long U or Long OOThe Long U DigraphsWhen is Initial U Short and when is it Long ?

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Sometimes in the middle of a word the Y-consonant-sound is also written with a letter I. This pronunciation usually occurs after a consonant sound with a preceding vowel.  For example: billiards, billion, brilliant, civilian, companion, familiar, junior, million, onion, peculiar, senior and union. These words were all imported into English from French or Latin during the Norman period. 

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The Y-consonant-sound is also spelt EU. This spelling is most commonly found in the old EU- prefix. The prefix is a form of the Greek EUS- meaning good/well/right/happy. (The opposite is DYS-, as in dystopia, dyslexia and dysentery.) EU- prefix words include: eucalyptus, euphemism, euphoria and euthanasia. (The word Europe was derived from the name of princess Europa, who was raped by Zeus in Greek mythology.)

In conclusion, the Y-consonant-sound, when spelt with a letter Y, is normally before a vowel and usually at the beginning of a word. It is part of the long U sound in its various spellings. This sound is also sometimes spelt I in the middle of a word or EU at the beginning. This sound only has a limited association with its letter. 

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Other Articles on Phonics or Spelling/Pronunciation Pattern:

Long U or Long OO

When is Initial U Short and when is it Long ?

The Long U Digraphs (EW,UE)

Magic E and the Long U Sound

Hard And Soft G Spelling Patterns

Common G Spelling Patterns

How We Got Hard And Soft G

-ING Endings


PH in Suffixes and Prefixes

The F sound: FF & GH

The F Sound

The Oi/Oy Sound

Silent D Is Not Always Silent




Stranger Pronunciations of C


The Letter C is Useless

The letter B

The aw-sound

The Schwa Sound

The Magic-e

The Letter A a

by John Larrysson [email protected]  

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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