English words without vowels

November 11, 2019

There are very few lexical words (that is, not counting interjections) without vowel letters. The longest such lexical word is tsktsks, pronounced /ˌtɪskˈtɪsks/. The mathematical expression nth /ˈɛnθ/, as in delighted to the nth degree, is in fairly common usage. Another mathematical term without vowel letters is rng /ˈrʌŋ/, derived from ring by deleting the letter ⟨i⟩. A more obscure example is ln.

Vowelless proper names from other languages, such as the surname Ng, may retain their original spelling, even if they are pronounced with vowels.

In the Middle English period, there were no standard spellings, but ⟨w⟩ was sometimes used to represent either a vowel or a consonant sound in the same way that Modern English does with ⟨y⟩, particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries. This vocalic ⟨w⟩ generally represented /uː/, as in wss (“use”). However at that time the form ⟨w⟩ was still sometimes used to represent a digraph ⟨uu⟩ (see W), not as a separate letter. This practice exists in modern Welsh orthography so that words borrowed from Welsh may use ⟨w⟩ this way, such as:

  • The crwth (pronounced /ˈkrʊθ/ or /ˈkruːθ/ and also spelled cruth in English) is a Welsh musical instrument similar to the violin:
He intricately rhymes, to the music of crwth and pibgorn.
  • cwtch (a hiding place or cubby hole) is also from Welsh (albeit a recent word influenced by English, and used almost exclusively in the variant of English spoken in Wales, not in standard English), and crwth and cwtch are the longest English dictionary words without ⟨a, e, i, o, u, y⟩ according to Collins Dictionary.
  • cwm (pronounced /ˈkuːm/) is used in English in a technical geographical or mountaineering context to mean a deep hollow in a mountainous area, usually with steep edges on some sides, like a corrie or cirque, such as the Western Cwm of Mount Everest. It is also sometimes used, by way of more recent borrowing from Welsh, in a more general sense of a valley. The spellings coombecombecoomb, and comb come from the Old English cumb, which appears either to be a much earlier borrowing from a predecessor of modern Welsh, or to have an even earlier origin, given that there was an ancient Greek word κὑμβη (kumbē) meaning a hollow vessel.12] In English literature, one can find the spellings combe (as in Ilfracombe and Castle Combe), coomb (as in J. R. R. Tolkien) or comb (as in Alfred, Lord Tennyson).

There are also numerous vowelless interjections and onomatopoeia found more or less frequently, including brr (brrr is occasionally accepted, bzztgrrrhmhmmmmmmmmhmmpfftphtphpht, psstshshhzzz.