Sound values(1) Formerly, the common feature in the pronunciation of u, v, w, was lip movement: lip-rounding is a feature of the back vowel in put and truth and the front vowel in French tu; /v/ is a labio-dental consonant; /w/ is a labial semi-vowel. In Modern English, French u has been Anglicized as a diphthong with a preceding i-glide (music, argue) and u commonly represents /w/ before a vowel after g, q, and s (anguish, quiet, persuade). (2) Beside these traditional values of u, most English accents have a further value. By the 17c, a vowel shift in southern England had changed the put-value of u in many words to a new sound, now heard in most accents, but not in the accents of the English Midlands and North. This is the value of u in but (except for the North of England), which today no longer rhymes with put and involves no lip-rounding. (3) In general pronunciation, the letter u spells four distinct vowel sounds, as in but, put, truth, music, as well as the /w/ in quiet, etc. The four vowel sounds will be referred to below as the values but-u, put-u, truth-u, music-u.
Long and short UThe four vowel values can be grouped into long and short pairs: but-u and put-u are short, truth-u and music-u are long. Like the long and short values of the other vowel letters, short and long u alternate in related words: assumption/assume, humble/humility, judge/judicious, number/numerous, punish/punitive, reduction/reduce, study/student.
Variation in valuesThe four values are not consistently distinguished. ScoE typically does not distinguish put-u and truth-u, and AmE often gives a truth-u to words pronounced with music-u in RP: AmE duty rhyming with booty, RP duty rhyming with beauty. This change occurs only after alveolar consonants: /d, l, n, r, s, t/. Because the but/put split did not take place in the Midlands and North of England, but/put rhyme in the accents of these regions. This non-distinction of but-u and put-u has often been stigmatized as non-standard, while their occasional reversal (butcher being pronounced with but-u rather than put-u) is considered to be hypercorrection towards RP. Variation between truth-u and music-u is not always regional, the distinction generally being blurred after l, s, as when lute/loot may or may not be pronounced as homophones, and sue/suit may in BrE have either long value of u. Although four possible vowel values in many accents make u a complex letter (with division into short and long realizations, and with variation between these values), a particular value is generally apparent from the environment. U is normally short except syllable-finally, and truth-u only arises after certain consonants.
Other spellingsThe values of u have common alternative spellings. As a result of vowel shifts or spelling changes, patterns have arisen with the sound values of u in but, put, truth, but using o (son, wolf, do, move), or oe (does, shoes), or oo (blood, good, food), or ou (touch, could, youth). Similarly the sound of long u is commonly spelt ew (crew, dew, few, newt, pewter, steward); arguably w should be seen here as a positional variant of u (compare few/feud).
But-U (short)Short u occurs before final consonants and (usually multiple) medial consonants: initial u in words of Old English origin (udder, ugly, under, up, us, utter, and the negative prefix un- as in unborn, uneventful); before two consonants in some non-English words (ulcer, ultimate, umbilical, umpire); in monosyllables ending in a consonant letter (tub, bud, cuff, mug, luck, cull, bulk, hum, sun, bunk, cup, bus, just, hut); in short-vowel monosyllables ending in silent e (budge, bulge, plunge). A few monosyllables contain put-u (see below), and the truth-u in truth itself (and also in Ruth) is an exception. In polysyllables, but-u usually precedes two consonants, either doubled (rubble, bucket, rudder, suffer, nugget, sullen, summer, supple, hurry, russet, butter) or as a string (publish, indulgent, number, abundant). Words ending in -ion similarly have short u before two consonants: percussion, convulsion, compunction, destruction, assumption, but long u before a single consonant in confusion, evolution. Exceptions to these patterns include long u in duplicate, lucrative, rubric and as indicated by final magic e in scruple (contrast short ou in couple); short u before a single consonant in study (contrast muddy, Judy) and in bunion (contrast trunnion, union).
Put-U (short)The lip-rounded put-u occurs in a few words, especially after the labial consonants b, p, and before l: bull, bullet, bulletin, bullion, bully, bush, bushel, butcher, cuckoo, cushion, full, pudding, pull, pullet, pulley, pulpit, push, puss, put, sugar. Muslim is heard with both but-u and put-u. Put-u is nevertheless not a rare sound in English, being also spelt ou in the common could, would, should, and frequently oo, as in foot, good.
Truth-U and Music-U (long)Long u (whether, truth-u or music-u) occurs in polysyllables before a single consonant with following vowel: contrast fundamental/funeral and the patterns in cucumber, undulate. Long u occurs in: alluvial, deputy, educate, fury, ludicrous, lunar, peculiar, refusal, ruby, rufous, ruminate, superb. In final closed syllables, long u is usually shown by magic (lengthening) e: amuse, flute, fume, huge, prelude, puce, puke, pure, refute, rude, rule, ruse, tube, tune. In accordance with the above patterns, the monosyllabic prefix sub- has but-u (subject), but disyllabic super- has long u. In most circumstances, long u is music-u, the initial i-glide being assimilated to produce truth-u only after certain consonants. Music-u is therefore found word-initially before a single consonant, especially in derivations from the Latin root unus (one), as in unicorn, unify, union, unity, universe. Other cases include ubiquitous, urine, use, utility, Music-u follows consonants as in ambulance, acute, confuse, coagulate, music, annual, compute, enthuse, revue, and in RP but commonly not in AmE as in duke, tube. Both music-u and truth-u are heard after l, s (lute, suit). Truth-u occurs after r, sh (includingt the affricate j) and is explicit in yu: truth, prune, Shute, chute, Schubert, June, jury, yule. In an unstressed medial syllable, ‘long’ music-u tends in fact to be a rather short vowel: contrast deputy, educate with dispute, duke.
Final USyllable-final u is pronounced long. Word-finally, it has an additional silent e in long-established English words (argue, continue, due, rue), although this commonly disappears before suffixes (argue/argument, continue/continual, due/duty, true/truth). Final u occurs without following e, particularly in recently formed or borrowed words: emu, flu, guru, Hindu, jujitsu, menu. Long u also arises syllable-finally before a vowel (contrast annul, annual): dual, suet, fluid, fluoride, vacuum.
U before RBefore r with no following vowel, RP gives u the same value as e or i before r: fur, hurt, nurse, absurd, purchase, concur (compare her, sir). When a vowel follows, u is long (rural, bureau, during), but is modified with the hint of an inserted schwa (cure, pure, endure; rural, bureau, during). Like other multiple consonants, rr normally induces a preceding but-u: burrow, current, flurry, furrier (noun): but the adjective furry retains the value of u of its base form fur, and its comparative furrier is then a homograph of the noun furrier with its but-u.
U and schwaLike all vowel letters in English, u when unstressed in fluent speech may lose distinctive value, being reduced to SCHWA: initially (until, upon), before a stressed syllable (suggest, surround), and after the main stress especially before l, m, n, r, s (medially, as in faculty, calumny, voluntary, Saturday, industry, and in final syllables awful, difficult, autumn, album, minimum, museum, tedium, vacuum, murmur, injure, circus, radius). In some words, u is reduced to schwa while retaining the preceding i-glide of music-u: century, failure. In lettuce and in the noun minute, u is commonly reduced to schwa, and in RP to the value of short i. The adjective minute has music-u.
AssimilationPhonetically, music-u is a diphthong consisting of a glide i-sound followed by truth-u, but in fluent speech the glide often affects the value of a preceding consonant, sometimes being assimilated with it entirely, as when duty, tune are spoken as ‘jooty’, ‘choon’ (typically not in North America), and casual, picture are spoken as ‘kazhel’, ‘pikcher’. Such assimilation is usual before the suffixes -ual, -ure after d, s, t, z: gradual, casual, mutual; verdure, closure, picture, azure. The assimilation with initial s in sugar, sure is of such long standing that the s is perceived as having an abnormal value. For some speakers, the tendency extends to assume and presume spoken as ‘ashoom’, ‘prezhoom’.
Semi-vowel U(1) vowel occurs commonly in words of FRENCH derivation and typically after g (distinguish, guava, language, sanguine), q (quash, quail, quest, quit, quiet, quote, acquaint, equal, loquacious), and s (suave, suede, suite, persuade). (2) In similar contexts, however, u may have its full vowel value: contrast suite/suicide. (3) Some words with initial qu are of OLD ENGLISH origin, having changed their spelling after the Norman Conquest from cw- to qu-: cwen, cwic now written queen, quick.
Silent U(1) Especially in words of French derivation: after g (where it serves to distinguish hard and soft g: page/vague), as in vague, fatigue, vogue, fugue, and after q, as in opaque, technique, mosquito. (2) In initial qu (quay, queue) and in conquer and often languor, although pronounced /w/ in conquest, languid. (3) Elsewhere, u is inserted only to preserve the hard value of preceding g: Portugal/Portuguese (see G, Q). (4) Although apparently part of a digraph, u is effectively silent in gauge, aunt, laugh, BrE draught (compare AmE draft), build, cough, trough, though, BrE mould, moult, smoulder (compare AmE mold, molt, smolder), boulder, shoulder, soul, buoy (especially BrE), buy. Although u is silent in biscuit, circuit, it arguably indicates preceding hard c (contrast explicit). It is optionally silent in conduit.
DigraphsU often has the secondary function of indicating a modified value for a preceding letter. For the digraph au (as in taut) and ou (as in out), see A, O respectively. Eau in beauty has the value of music-u. For final eau (bureau, etc.), see E. The main digraphs having one of the four sound values of u are:
EU. (1) The digraph eu regularly represents music-u, especially in words of GREEK derivation (Europe, eulogy, pseudo-, neurotic), but occasionally elsewhere (feud). (2) In sleuth, the eu represents truth-u, as does oeu in BrE manoeuvre (AmE maneuver).
OU. (1) The digraph ou has one of the values of u, except when it is used as a standard digraph for the diphthong in out and for long o as in soul. See O. The spelling ou sometimes derives from French, and sometimes represents earlier pronunciation with a long vowel. (2) It represents but-u as in country, couple, cousin, double, southern, touch, trouble, young, with following /f/ spelt-gh as in enough, rough, tough, and in BrE courage, flourish, nourish, AmE giving this -our- the value as in journey. (3) It represents put-u in could, should, would and truth-u in ghoul, group, soup, through, uncouth, wound (noun), youth and also in such recent French loans as boulevard, bouquet, coup, BrE route (in AmE often homophonous with rout), souvenir, tour, trousseau. (4) It represents modified u before r: courteous, courtesy (compare cognate curts[e]y), journal (cognate diurnal), journey, scourge (compare urge).
UE, UI. The combinations ue and ui usually indicate long u: Tuesday, juice, sluice, bruise, nuisance, cruise, fruit, suit, pursuit, recruit. The i is redundant when the word already ends in e: compare reduce/juice, ruse/bruise. In the verbs related to suit, pursuit, the i is replaced by e: sue, pursue.
Variations(1) Historically, there has been variation of spelling and pronunciation, especially between u and o: in the cognates custom/costume, ton/tun, tone/tune. See O. One factor may have been a need to distinguish the vertical strokes or minims of u from the vertical strokes of adjacent letters in MIDDLE ENGLISH manuscripts; hence Middle English sone rather than sune for Old English sunu and Modern English son. (2) Similarly, w may sometimes have been used to avoid confusion of u/v (contrast coward/cover and French couard), or to distinguish homophones (foul/fowl), or even meanings of the ‘same’ word, such as the recent differentiation of flour/flower. (3) In general, ou occurs medially (house, though) and ow more often finally (how, throw), before vowels (tower), and before l (howl, bowl), n (clown, sown), and d (crowd). However, the choice between ou, ow is often arbitrary, as in the cognates noun/renown. (4) For AmE -or, BrE -our, see o. (5) The number four loses u in the derivative forty, though not in fourteen. See CLASSICAL ENDING, V, W.
U1 / yoō/ (also u) • n. (pl. Us or U's ) 1. the twenty-first letter of the alphabet. ∎ denoting the next after T in a set of items, categories, etc. 2. (U) a shape like that of a capital U, esp. a cross section: [in comb.] U-shaped glaciated valleys. U2 • symb. the chemical element uranium. U3 • adj. inf., chiefly Brit. (of language or social behavior) characteristic of or appropriate to the upper social classes: U manners. U4 / oō/ • n. a Burmese title of respect before a man's name, equivalent to Mr.: U Thien San.
During the 16th century continental printers began to distinguish lower case u as the vowel symbol and v as the consonant symbol, and by the mid 17th century this was also the case in English. Capital V continued to be used for both V and U into the 17th century, but in the course of that century it was replaced, for the vowel, by capital U. From about 1700 the regular forms have been U u for the vowel, and V v for the consonant. However, many dictionaries continued into the 19th century to give items beginning with u or v in a single alphabetic sequence.
U is used (of language or social behaviour) to mean characteristic of or appropriate to the upper social classes. The expression is an abbreviation of upper class, and was coined in 1954 by Alan S. C. Ross, professor of linguistics, the term was popularized by its use in Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige (1956).
u • abbr. Physics denoting quantum states or wave functions that change sign on inversion through the origin. The opposite of g. • symb. [in comb.] (in units of measurement) micro- (10−6): direct readout of concentration in ug or mg/l.
• (ital.) Optics, symbol for object distance
• (ital.) Thermodynamics specific internal energy
• Meteorol., symbol for ugly threatening sky
• Physics ungerade (German: odd; in spectroscopy)
• Chem., symbol for unified atomic mass unit
• Physics up (a quark flavour)
• (ital.) Physics, symbol for a velocity component or speed