Words without vowels

Words without vowels

In non-rhotic English dialects, such as Received Pronunciation, every lexical word must contain at least one spoken vowel in its pronunciation. In rhotic dialects, such as General American, a word may contain no other vowel sounds if it instead has an R sound, as in "word."

However, there are many words that do not contain a vowel letter (defined as A, E, I, O, U) in their written form. In most of these, such as "try," the letter Y stands for a vowel sound. (Abbreviations such as "km" are of course not considered words in their own right.)

There are also some truly vowelless interjections and onomatopoeia which do not contain R.

Words without vowel letters

A large number of Modern English words spell the IPAEng|ɪ or IPA|/aɪ/ sound with the letter Y, such as "cry, by, sky, why, wry, spy, gym, crypt, hymn, lynx, myth, glyph, tryst, nymph, Gypsy, pygmy, flyby," and "syzygy." The longest such word in common use is "rhythms," and the longest such word in Modern English is the obsolete 17th-century word "." (If archaic words and spellings are considered, there are many more, the longest perhaps being "twyndyllyngs," the plural of ".")

In the computer game "The 7th Guest", one of the puzzles involves a vowelless sentence,:"Shy gypsy slyly spryly tryst by my crypt."

Similarly, the letter "w" stands for a vowel sound (IPA|/u/) in Welsh words, and two of these have entered Modern English:
*The "crwth" (pronounced IPA|/ˈkrʊθ/ or IPA|/ˈkruːθ/ and also spelled "cruth") is a Welsh musical instrument similar to the violin::"He intricately rhymes, to the music of crwth and pibgorn." [Dylan Thomas, "Under Milk Wood," 1954]
*A "cwm" (pronounced IPA|/ˈkuːm/) is a deep hollow within a mountain, usually with steep edges, such as the Western Cwm of Mount Everest. However, it is nearly always spelled "combe" (as in Ilfracombe and Castle Combe), "coomb" (as in J. R. R. Tolkien) or "comb" (as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson).

There is also the mathematical expression "n"th (pronounced IPA|/ɛnθ/), as in "delighted to the nth degree," which has entered common usage.

Many acronyms contain no vowels, such as MC and DJ (also spelled "emcee" and "deejay)" for Master of Ceremonies and disc jockey.

Words without vowel sounds

Rhotic dialects, such as in the United States and Canada, have many words such as "bird, learn, girl, church, worst," which some phoneticians analyze as having no vowels, only a syllabic consonant, IPA| [ɹ̩] . However, others analyze these words instead as having a rhotic vowel, IPA| [ɝ] . The difference may be partially one of dialect.

There are a few such words which are disyllabic, like "cursor, curtain," and "tercel:" IPA| [ˈkɹ̩sɹ̩] , IPA| [ˈkɹ̩tn̩] and IPA| [ˈtɹ̩sl̩] (or IPA| [ˈkɝsɚ] , IPA| [ˈkɝtən] , and IPA| [ˈtɝsəl] ). The word "myrrh," perhaps uniquely in the English language, contains neither a vowel letter nor a vowel sound in these dialects: IPA| [ˈmɹ̩] (or IPA| [ˈmɝ] ).

The word "and" frequently contracts to a simple nasal consonant "’n," as in "lock 'n key" IPA| [ˌlɒk ŋ ˈkiː] . Words such as "will, have," and "is" regularly contract to "’ll" [l] , "’ve" [v] , and "’s" [z] . However, none of them are pronounced alone without vowels.

Onomatopoeic words that can be pronounced alone, and which have no vowels or Rs, include "hmm, pht!, pst!, shh!, tsk!," and "zzz".

Other languages

There are languages that form lexical words without any vowel sounds. The best known are probably the Slavic languages. In Croatian, for example, the consonants IPA| [r] and IPA| [rː] (the difference is not written) can act as a syllable nucleus and carry rising or falling tone; examples include the tongue-twister "na vrh brda vrba mrda" and geographic names such as "Krk". In Czech, either IPA| [l] or IPA| [r] can stand in for vowels: "vlk" IPA| [vl̩k] "wolf", "krk" IPA| [kr̩k] "neck". A particularly long word without vowels is "čtvrthrst," meaning "quarter-handful", with two syllables (one for each R). Whole sentences can be made from such words, such as "Strč prst skrz krk," meaning "stick a finger through your neck" (follow the link for a sound file), and "Smrž pln skvrn zvlhl z mlh" "A morel full of spots wetted from fogs". (Here "zvlhl" has two syllables based on L; note that the preposition "z" consists of a single consonant. Only prepositions do this in Czech, and they normally link phonetically to the following noun, so do not really behave as vowelless words.) In Russian, there are also prepositions that consist of a single consonant letter, like "k" "to", "v" "in", and "s" "with". As in Czech, and English "’ll, ’ve, ’s, etc.," they do not normally occur alone.

So far, all of these syllabic consonants, at least in the lexical words, have been sonorants, such as [r] , [l] , [m] , and [n] , which have a voicing quality similar to vowels. However, there are languages with words that not only contain no vowels, but contain no sonorants at all, like "shh!" in English. These include Lolo, a few dialects of Berber, some of the northwestern Bantu languages, and some languages of the American Pacific Northwest, such as Nuxálk. An example from the latter is "sxs" "seal fat" (pronounced|sxs, as spelled), and a longer one is "unicode|xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓" (pronounced|xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰʦʼ) "he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant". (Follow the Nuxálk link for other examples.) Such words cannot be said very loud, as the human voice can only be loud when pronouncing sonorants.

In Mandarin Chinese, words and syllables such as "sī" and "zhī" are sometimes described as being syllabic fricatives and affricates phonemically, IPA|/ś/ and IPA|/tʂ́/, but phonetically they contain a sonorant segment that carries the tone.


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