Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Y" Aren't You a Vowel?

When I was a kid, six and seven, my elementary school designated me educationally incompetent on the sole basis that I had ADHD. Despite my insatiable appetite for words (and my ability to read and comprehend at a level several grades above my peers), the school dictated that I required "special help" with what they called "Language Arts". Each morning I would be summoned away from the usual classroom and ushered into a dark room with scratchy carpeting, dingy ceilings, musty air, and some weird cubicle walls that rubbed like sandpaper. In this dark corner, seated at a long table alongside four or five other kids I never bothered to really acquaint myself with, I was "taught" to read.

Y'know, that thing I already knew how to do. Because my ADHD didn't actually make me a moron, I aced everything with ease. Five minutes into the class and I was done with my paperwork and had earned the privilege to play one of those cheap 90's educational computer games. The ones with puppy dogs flying airplanes and dropping the appropriate letters onto bridges to help a pig cross the canyon. Instead of just giving the pig a lift in the airplane. I dunno, man, just give him a ride over. Who the hell wrecked the bridge going to his house, anyway?

Whoops, ADHD. Anyways, I wasn't stupid, so these "special" classes were really no trouble at all. It was kind of fun, getting everything right. The other kids called me the "Human Dictionary", which was a very welcome stroke to my ego. Even the teachers were often pleasantly surprised with my uncanny ability to understand the lesson on the first go (though most of the time, I understood the lesson before it had even begun. It isn't that difficult to come up with five words using the letter "G"). There was one thing I never quite understood, and they weren't ever able to teach me. Maybe this is why I was in the special reading group, but I don't see why. My thoughts never impacted my ability to perform. They were just ramblings, actually of the sort I post regularly.

When it came to the letter "Y", I just didn't get it. I still have a lot of trouble with it--not using it, just understanding its place in the world. I have this habit of personifying everything, and in my mind "Y" was lonely being neither a vowel nor a consonant. It was made fun of by both groups and wasn't allowed to play their reindeer games. "She", actually. Y is a girl. Anyways, I decided that Y simply was a vowel, and there was nothing more to it. None of this "sometimes" nonsense. She's a vowel. Done deal.

The teachers didn't really like that.

I always made sure to write "sometimes" when filling out worksheets, so I was always correct academically. But every session would end with a class discussion, which I typically dominated, where we would talk about the lesson, but sometimes about current events or whatever other topic happened to show up. Frequently these discussions devolved into debates between myself and the instructors on the letter Y in which I would argue that Y is simply a vowel and there's nothing more to it. In an attempt to appeal to my reasoning, the teachers argued that Y couldn't be a vowel because there were no words in which it pronounced its own name. Even the word "why" forces the letter to pull from I's bag of tricks.

There's probably a little validity to that argument. After all, there are instances where the other vowels are called by their names. One of the first things a child learns about vowels is their variant pronunciations (which I believe were referred to as "hard" and "soft" noises, which might be why I use such terms when referring to certain syllables). Y lacked a hard or soft sound, opting instead to have a very wide assortment of available sounds pulled from its cousins. Still, I couldn't accept this as true. In my mind a word using Y by its name existed by simply hadn't been discovered yet.

Everything was about discovery, you see. Discovery or creation. I imagined a whole group of scientists working day and night on our letters, trying to uncover their meanings using mathematical calculation and powerful computer simulations. I was certain there was a team of expert alphabetologists toiling away at the mysteries of the language to uncover the coveted "Word of Y". Alternatively, I also imagined a group of engineers running various new words through test group after test group, like a new product, to determine which word would work best at representing the letter on its own.

So what I said to the teachers was: "They're working on it."

Almost reasonably, the teachers told me I was wrong. There was nobody working on turning "Y" into the vowel she so desperately yearned to be, and nobody ever could, because Y wasn't a vowel and that was that. After a few bouts with these certified child-handlers, they began growing angry with me, often yelling at me, because that's what adults do with children. Yell at them in the hopes of either shutting them up or making them finally understand that "you are wrong, I am right". Unfortunately for them, my mother was a yeller as weller, so I knew how to yell right back.

And the funny thing is: I still think they're wrong. Of course there isn't any organization of coat-clad colleagues busily constructing new and exciting words and digging deep into the ancient recesses of the Earth to find that one word which uses Y in all her glory. However, you don't need a white coat and a Ph.D. to create a new word. People do it all the time. "Ain't ain't a word" until it suddenly was. That's kind of the beautiful thing about language. It's an always-changing, evolving concept with the sole purposes of suiting the needs and wants of the people using it.

Right now it's probably true that Y isn't a vowel. She's a semivowel, of course. Really, though, she doesn't have to be. We simply have chosen her to be. We have designated that role for her. And we can, at any time, choose to grant her the status of "vowel" and pop off a word which utilizes her name. Of all the vowels in the land, the, Y would be the best. Not only is her name honored with a word, but she has the talents of I and E, too. She also offers her services as a glue to bind certain words together.

Maybe "They" aren't working on it, and maybe "They" never will. That's fine. But dear Y, I promise you this: I'm working on it.

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