Local Man Stumped by Child's Grammar Question
November 21, 2016 4:05 PM   Subscribe

DOT, Jr.: "Is the 'y' in 'say' considered silent or a vowel? Or is it like part of a combination sound with the 'a'?" My guess is it counts as a dipthong with the "A" in some way, but honestly I do not know.
posted by DirtyOldTown to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's because "ay" can be a digraph in English (two vowels that make one sound together).
posted by christinetheslp at 4:11 PM on November 21, 2016

It's not a diphthong because the two letters are not pronounced separately.

The y is essential because it changes the pronunciation from "sa" to "say" as intended.

As christine said, ay is a digraph.
posted by JimN2TAW at 4:16 PM on November 21, 2016

Possibly relevant
posted by bunderful at 4:25 PM on November 21, 2016

It's considered a diphthong in "Standard American", but presumably it sounds more or less like one depending on your specific accent: IPA phoneme /eɪ/
posted by the agents of KAOS at 4:30 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

OK, the phonetic transcription of say in a generic-ish American accent is /seɪ/.

That's an /s/ as in say, and then the sound of an e asin "bed" or "met"; other people describe this vowel as one that doesn't appear independently in words in English but only in diphthongs like this. The y represents the sound of an i in "hit" or "sit." I know it's really hard to hear as a layperson—when I was studying this stuff it was really hard for me to hear that /ɪ/ the way my teachers said we were supposed to. I had to take their word for it for awhile. The "ay" together is a diphthong, two vowel sounds that connect to each other, so you start with one and transition to the other one. In this case, the y is representing a vowel sound.

People who are saying this is a digraph, a single phoneme represented by two letters, are also not wrong. I have seen ay described as one of the "common diphthongs" in English. If you google, you will find it on lists of common digraphs and lists of common diphthongs. I couldn't resists doing this, and it looks like linguists are more likely to call it a diphthong and reading teachers are more likely to call it a digraph or "the long A sound." There may also be dialect differences in how it's pronounced.
posted by Orlop at 4:31 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's not a diphthong because the two letters are not pronounced separately.

The vowel in "say" is absolutely pronounced as a diphthong in most dialects of english. It starts with an "eh" sound and ends in an "ee" sound. A lot of times this is spelled with just one vowel, or with an extra "silent" vowel later. This is true of a few of our "long" vowels. The English names of the letters A, I, and O are pronounced, in international phonetic alphabet, as the diphthongs ei, ai, and ou.

We do often use the letter "y" like an "ee" sound (international phonetic alphabet: i). So I'd say in this case, the y is actually pronounced. In that case the "a" represents a vowel sound that most dialects of English only ever have present in diphthongs.

Sometimes this diphthong is represented by just one letter ("fated") sometimes two ("paid") and sometimes one and then a "silent" letter later ("ate"). And sometimes it's just ridiculous ("eight"). Or sometimes it's a different letter ("hey!"). The phonetics are pretty clear and have pretty good rules, but the spelling is a mess, and it's hard to really find any strict rules for it.
posted by aubilenon at 4:48 PM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

It has to be a digraph, because otherwise the word would be "sa" and we would probably pronounce it closer to "saw" or "ya" than "say". You typically need some kind of digraph marker for words ending in a long A sound. I can't think of a single instance where a word ending in just "a" rhymes with "play" rather than "America".
posted by Sara C. at 6:26 PM on November 21, 2016

I can't think of a single instance where a word ending in just "a" rhymes with "play" rather than "America"

posted by aubilenon at 7:18 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

What aubilenon says.

These two vowel sounds pronounced as not a diphthong would sound much like the vowel sounds in the last name of famed author of Orientalism Edward Said. The French go so far as to mark his name orthographically with a diaeresis as 'Saïd'.

(There aren't any diphthong sounds in standard French any longer, but they have to mark two separate vowels here to avoid the 'ai' being taken for a single pure vowel, usually /ɛ/; but that's another story.)
posted by bertran at 7:55 PM on November 21, 2016

Maybe, to sum up: the digraph 'ay' is one possible way to represent orthographically the single English phoneme known as a "long A" which is usually realized phonetically as the diphthong [eɪ].

One might argue that the 'y' here is just as silent a letter as the 'e' in 'mate'. Both just telling us how to pronounce the associated 'a'. An interesting question is whether etymologically the digraph 'ay' -- or 'ai', for that matter, as in 'paid' -- derives from some earlier stage of the English sound and spelling system where it did uniquely represent a diphthong different from a true simple long A; in which case the 'y' and 'i' here would deserve to be seen as more than just 'silent' markers but rather as residual representations of the second vowel sound in the diphthong. (Don't know enough myself to answer this question and a quick web search wasn't enlightening.)
posted by bertran at 8:29 PM on November 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

To answer part of the original question which I don't think has been addressed: the y in 'say' functions, as it often does, as a semivowel.
posted by praemunire at 9:55 PM on November 21, 2016

There are several vowel sounds in English which are represented in writing by letters which are not immediately clear to non-English speakers. In Italian, where every letter (except "h") is clearly pronounced, this concept becomes very clear when they spell, in Italian, an English word. The Dallas character JR, for example, is written "Gei Ar", which clearly indicates that the "ay" sound of "say" is in fact a diphthong: the vowels of "bed" followed by "hit", as Orlop said. The simple word "I" (already represented as a diphthong in shorthand, BTW) would be written "ài" in Italian, with the accent indicating the stress on the first vowel.
posted by aqsakal at 11:06 PM on November 21, 2016

@ praemunire, I disagree. It's not best to think here of the 'a' and the 'y' as representing simple sounds that are compounded. 's' + 'a' + 'y' as a semi-vowel would give /saj/ which is kind of how the word 'sigh' is pronounced. The 'ay' really is a digraph, as others have remarked, which is a unit of letters that together represents one sound, which happens here to be a diphthong, /eɪ/. Why that digraph represents that diphthong is a historical question.

But, also, the final sound in 'say' is not the semi-vocalic Y-sound we have in words like 'yes' (= /jɛs/.) In French there are a lot of words that end with semi-vocalic /j/ after a vowel -- 'paille' (straw in English) = /paj/, for instance, and no-one would call the combination a diphthong. In English, however, a similar sequence, as in 'pie', is usually analysed as a diphthong, so here /paɪ/ : two vowel sounds glided together in one syllable.
posted by bertran at 11:06 PM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Granted, the difference between a vowel and a semi-vowel in analyzing diphthongs can be slight.
posted by bertran at 11:29 PM on November 21, 2016

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