In most languages of the world, all or nearly all words have vowels. In conservative rhotic dialects of English such as Scottish English, and non-rhotic English dialects such as Received Pronunciation, every lexical word must contain at least one spoken vowel in its pronunciation. In some rhotic dialects, such as General American, a word may contain no other vowel sounds if it instead has a syllabic 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 not considered words in their own right.)
A large number of Modern English words spell the /ɪ/ or /aɪ/ sound with the letter Y, such as my, by, try, sky, why, fry, gym, hymn myrrh, lynx, lynch, myth, 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 symphysy. (If archaic words and spellings are considered, there are many more, the longest perhaps being twyndyllyngs, the plural of twyndyllyng.) The poem "And Sometimes" by Christian Bök contains over 60 words with only consonants.
In the computer game The 7th Guest, one of the puzzles involves a vowelless sentence,
Similarly, the letter w stands for a vowel sound (/u/) in Welsh words, and two of these have entered Modern English:
There is also the mathematical expression nth (pronounced /ˈɛnθ/), as in delighted to the nth degree, which has entered common usage. The internet slang term pwn probably arose as a common typo for own.
Rhotic dialects, such as in Canada and the United States, have many words such as bird, learn, girl, church, worst, which some phoneticians analyze as having no vowels, only a syllabic consonant, [ɹ̩]. However, others analyze these words instead as having a rhotic vowel, [ɝ]. The difference may be partially one of dialect.
There are a few such words which are disyllabic, like cursor, curtain, and turtle: [ˈkɹ̩sɹ̩], [ˈkɹ̩tn̩] and [ˈtɹ̩tl̩] (or [ˈkɝːsɚ], [ˈkɝːtən], and [ˈtɝːtəl]), and even a few which are trisyllabic, such as purpler [ˈpɹ̩.pl̩.ɹ̩], hurdler [ˈhɹ̩.dl̩.ɹ̩], gurgler [ˈɡɹ̩.ɡl̩.ɹ̩], certainer [ˈsɹ̩.tn̩.ɹ̩], and Ur-turtle [ˈɹ̩.tɹ̩.tl̩]. The words wyrm and myrrh contain neither a vowel letter nor a vowel sound in these dialects: [ˈwɹ̩m], [ˈmɹ̩] (or [ˈwɝːm], [ˈmɝː]).
The word and frequently contracts to a simple nasal consonant ’n, as in lock 'n key [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.
There are other languages that form lexical words without any vowel sounds. In Croatian and Serbian, for example, the consonants [r] and [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, and Slovak, either [l] or [r] can stand in for vowels: vlk [vl̩k] "wolf", krk [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". However, these forms are actually contractions of ko, vo, and so respectively, and these forms are still used in modern Russian before words with certain consonant clusters for ease of pronunciation.
In Kazakh and certain other Turkic languages, words without vowel sounds may occur due to reduction of weak vowels. A common example is the Kazakh word for one: bir, pronounced [br=]. Among careful speakers, however, the original vowel may be preserved, and the vowels are always preserved in the orthography.
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, some Berber languages, 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 xłp̓x̣ʷłtłpłłskʷc̓ (pronounced [xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ]) "he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant". (Follow the Nuxálk link for other examples.) Berber examples include /tkkststt/ "you took it off" and /tfktstt/ "you gave it". Some words may contain one or two consonants only: /ɡ/ "be", /ks/ "feed on". In Mandarin Chinese, words and syllables such as sī and zhī are sometimes described as being syllabic fricatives and affricates phonemically, /ś/ and /tʂ́/, but phonetically they contain a sonorant segment that carries the tone.