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I'm wondering if N could be a partial vowel much like Y is. Since, at least to my understanding, vowels are used in between many consonant to make a word flow without having to pause, so why isn't n a vowel. One can make the n sound and go directly to an L, R, and some other letters, but one can't go from an n sound directly to a B very well. By this reasoning one could say that it just can't mesh well with enough letters, but there is a similar problem with Y. It can mesh well with only a few consonant -at least this is what I think based off of my trying to pronounce them with other letters of the alphabet-. These y and consonant combinations are yl, ym, yn, and yr. Even then some of the combos are stretching the ability for them to be pronounced well.

Why then isn't n considered a vowel sometimes like y is?

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    Ability to pronounce sequences of sounds depends on a person's native language. In some languages, even going from "n" to an "l" or "r" sound is difficult. In others, there are even more complicated sequences of sounds. – ewawe Jul 11 '15 at 18:22
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In fact, it is, if you adopt the linguist's distinction between "syllabic" and "non-syllabic" segment to replace the less-clear notion of "vowel" versus "consonant".

Y per se is not considered a vowel, but that's because when /y/ functions as a vowel, it is transcribed as [i] – likewise w which is transcribed as [u] when it functions like a vowel. Otherwise, /m n l r/ and so on can all function "as vowels", that is, as syllable peaks, and are transcribed as [m̩ n̩ l̩ r̩]. To confuse things just a bit more, there is also an optional special symbol [ɚ] used to notate syllabic ɹ in English.

There are relatively few languages which present syllabicity contrasts in sonorants -- classical examples are Serbo-Croatian and Swahili. In (American) English, you can transcribe "button" with syllabic n or with [ən], where the latter reflects the phonological status of syllabic sonorants and the former reflects the lack of an actual vowel segment in the phonetic output. There is actually phonological evidence in favor of the syllabic n transcription, in light of the reduction of /t/ to [ʔ] which takes place before n but not [ə] (e.g. [bʌɾɹ̩] "butter" vs. [bʌʔn̩] "button").

The syllabic status of the liquid in "tire", "pail" in American English is notoriously uncertain, with linguists asserting with great moral certainty at a 50-50 rate that these words are 1 syllable / 2 syllable. Nobody seems to claim that "pain", "coin", "time" are two syllables, so there seems to be something special about l, r when preceded by a so-called diphthong (i.e. yl, yr).

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  • The argument regarding pronouncing /t/ as [ʔ] is unconvincing, because in Cockney it does indeed occur before an unstressed vowel. – Rosie F Jul 13 '16 at 8:21
  • The argument is based on facts of American English, not Cockney. – user6726 Jul 13 '16 at 14:01
  • True, this answer mentioned American English, but the question did not specify so narrow a scope. – Rosie F Jul 13 '16 at 16:30

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