If you think about the letter Y in English, it actually has a dual function. Sometimes it is a vowel, as in the word “pretty”, and sometimes it is a consonant, as in the word “yellow”. If you think about it even more and listen carefully to how your mouth forms the sounds, you may even notice that the Y vowel and consonant in English are actually very similar. For example, if you were to say “iellow” instead of “yellow”, the sound would come out the same. A very similar relationship exists between the two uses of Y in Spanish. It can be a consonant, in which case it sounds like the English consonant Y, as in the word “ya” (now) or “yo” (I). In other instances the Y acts like a vowel, substituting the letter “I” as in the word for ‘and’, which consists of the single letter Y.
The consonant Y sound is the same as the LL in Spanish, such as in the word “llave” meaning ‘key’. The exact sound ranges from being almost identical to the English Y through to an effect produced by light friction between the tongue and the roof of the mouth about half way towards an English J sound. In South American Spanish the sound can be like a full J, especially in Argentina and Uruguay where “yo” sounds like “jo” and “llave” sounds like “jave”. Many English speakers find these variations in consonant sounds disconcerting as they strive to work out which sound is ‘correct’. However, a range of light to hard in many Spanish consonants is quite admissible within the language. Conversely, the Spanish vowels have to be much more consistent than in English as they form the basis of the correct sound of each word.
There is a fair variety of words in Spanish that begin with the letter Y, although there are very few which have related words in the English language. Here are some that just about qualify: “yate”, (yacht); “yip” (jeep); “yodo” (iodine); “yogur” (yoghurt). The letter Y is quite common at the ends of words, usually following other vowels, for example: “hay” (there is, there are); “buey” (ox); “soy” (I am).
Going back to our two most common Y words “yo” and “ya”, I thought it would be useful to look at some frequent uses of these words in phrases.
“Ya” means “now” or “already”, so we have: “¡Ya está!” (That’s it now!); “¡Ya entiendo!” (Now I understand!); “¡Basta ya!” (That’s enough now!); “Ya voy” (I’m going now, I’m on my way).
“Yo” means “I”, and here are some good ways to use it: “¿Yo qué sé?” (How should I know?); “Yo también” (Me too); “Porque lo digo yo” (Because I say so); “Soy yo” (It’s me!).
The letter Y plays its part in the formation of verbs, as again it can substitute the letter “I” in certain circumstances. This occurs for example with the verb “oír” (to hear). It changes to “oyes” (you hear); “oye” (he or she hears) and “oyen” (they hear). “Oye” is also the form used when we are telling someone to hear, or to listen. We might say “Oye, ¿sabes qué?” which in English would be “Hey, do you know what?” at the outset of some interesting piece of gossip.
A similar thing happens in one of the forms of the verb “ir” (to go) namely the gerund (going) which is “yendo”. A word of warning here though about “yendo” as it is not used with anything like the frequency of the word “going” in English.
The same substitution process works the other way where “y” can become “i”. This happens for example when numbers containing the word “y” get joined together so that “diez y ocho” becomes “dieciocho”.
Here is an assortment of some other more common Y words and their meanings: “Yedra” means “ivy” as in the plant, but I have never heard it used as a name. “Yema” means “yoke” and reminds me more than anything of that rich yellow variety of sweet “turrón” eaten by the Spanish at Christmas time. The pad or tip of one’s finger is also referred to as the “yema”.
There is a family word beginning with Y namely “son-in-law” which is “yerno”. A curious Y word is “ye-yé” which comes from the Beatles “yeah, yeah” of the 60’s. There is an old Spanish pop song called “La Chica Ye-Yé” which means the trendy girl, or perhaps the “with-it” girl, based on the Spanish view of fashions in the 60’s when Spain itself was living a very different reality from Britain.
Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks.