Hymenocallis / Ismene

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@jimmckenney.com
Tue, 06 Jul 2010 13:29:47 PDT
David wrote: “How Textbook!  No one ever considers the Y.  In Spanish, the Y
is a vowel.  But 

when it precedes another vowel in the same syllable it is pronounced as a 

palatal glide.  This is not unlike English, where the Y is considered a 

semi-vowel.  In English the Y is treated as a palatal glide only when it is 

[part of] the opening sound of a syllable; elsewhere it is treated as a



David, we probably disagree only in terminology. When people call printed
symbols such as a,e,i,o, u and sometimes y “vowels”, they are missing the
point. They do not become vowels until they are spoken with vowel sounds;
and in fact, some of them are sometimes spoken with consonantal sounds. It’s
all about the sounds, not the symbols used to represent them. 


We native speakers of English have a huge culturally imposed disadvantage
when it comes to understanding these things. That’s why most people on this
list have probably already clicked “delete” and gone on to something more
interesting to them.  : ) 


And what's wrong with "textbook"? 


We English speakers have odd ideas of what vowels are. If you ask an
American child to recite a list of the vowels ("a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y"
is the way I learned it), an Italian listening in will assert that the a,
the e and the i are not vowels, they are diphthongs; and that the u
(pronounced you) and the y (pronounced why) are not vowels at all but rather
consonant sounds associated with a vowel sound (or as you termed them
semi-vowels or glides). Some people even manage to turn the o into a


The letter u at the beginning of many English words is pronounced as a
consonant combined with a vowel sound - that's why cultivated speakers say
"a union" rather than "an union", a seeming violation of the misstated
"rule" to use "a" before a consonant and "an" before a vowel. There are
probably more words in English beginning with this consonantal u than there
are words beginning with a vocalic u. 


This topic of vowels becoming consonants (glides, semi-vowels) is the basis
for the emergence in Latin of the distinction between i (the vowel) and j
(the consonant, semi-vowel or glide) and u (the vowel) and v (the


The letters i and u are called weak vowels precisely because of this
tendency to become (both historically over time and in any episode of
speech) the corresponding consonant, semi-vowel, glide. 


Most languages avoid adjacent vowels because it is very difficult to
articulate them rapidly without inadvertently inserting glides (which is why
they are called glides: your speech apparatus can't pronounce successive
vowels properly at high speed without inserting some other sound, a
consonant sound, between them).


In part, this is the explanation of why Buddleia became Buddleja.    


These terminology issues have parallels in plant taxonomy. The term
consonant is like a morphological explanation of the sound. The term
semi-vowel describes a sound in terms of the difference between what its
printed form suggests and what its function says about it. The term glide
describes it purely in terms of its function. 


So when a taxonomist asserts that two things are the same purely on the
basis of morphology, the taxonomist is thinking the way people who make u
invariably a vowel think. 


When a taxonomist asserts that something is an intergeneric hybrid, the
taxonomist is thinking the way the semi-vowel people think. Since the
occurrences of i and u which function as consonants j and v were always
considered as vowels (i.e. in this comparison they had already been
taxonomically described as separate species), the best the taxonomist can do
to describe the new phenomenon (the purported hybrid) is to cling to the
earlier description of the parents as separate species, and not make the
leap in understanding which asserts that if they "hybridized", the parents
are of the same species (in spite of what the morphology says). They are not
vowels, they have become consonants (or have become glued to a consonant


To round out this analogy, when a good field taxonomist sees something which
does not make sense in terms of received wisdom, the taxonomist creates
something to bridge the received concepts, to glide,  into a meaningful


Jim McKenney


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