With a word such as this one, we seem to be at the outer limits of English orthography. It is indeed a rare bird. What is the y here? Consonant or vowel?
The answer, of course, as always, is neither: y is not a consonant or a vowel, it is a letter. Letters are not sounds; letters represent sounds, but – especially in English – they don’t always do so consistently. In some languages, y always represents a consonant; in others, it always represents a vowel; in English, it may represent either, and there are several vowels it can represent. It’s a real gold mine of phonemes… or if not gold, then something, anyway.
But we still tend to see it as a possible consonant, especially in unfamiliar words, and doubly so at the beginning of a word, where it nearly always represents a consonant. To see it followed by not just a t but a tt – ! It makes you want to trim some off. Hmmm… instead of ytterbium, how about terbium? or maybe erbium?
Aw, but where’s the fun in that? The word’s utter strangeness catches the eye. And as snarled and snagged as it may see, there’s something inside it that says I’m buttery. You want to read it backwards; you want to mix it up; you want to find rum, Betty, mutter, tribe, and even an incomplete muliebrity.
And what does it name? The ium ending should make it elementary… or anyway elemental. It’s an element, number 70 on the periodic table. It’s one of the rare earth elements, useful in combination with others to do quite a lot of tidy things. It’s also found mixed in with other rare earth elements, as rare earth elements tend to be. You will find it with, among others, terbium, erbium, and yttrium. Do these seem suspiciously similar? They were all originally identified in a mine in Ytterby, along with a few others (holmium, thulium, and gadolinium, named after Stockholm, Thule – a mythical name for Sweden – and Johan Gadolin, the person who originally identified them).
Ytterby! Where the heck is that? Look at those oarlocks, the Y and y – is this someplace you take a boat to get to? It had better be someplace nice, with a name like that! Well, but of course if you’re Swedish the name doesn’t seem so odd. In Swedish, by means “village” and ytter means “outer” (and is, yes, also cognate with utter), making its English equivalent something like Outerton. And those y’s in Swedish represent a high front rounded vowel, like in German fünf and French lune. And, by the way, in Swedish they say both /t/s – so not like in utter but like in coattail. But since that is quite outside the limits of English phonotactics, we say it with the beginning like “it” and the vowel after the b like the vowel in be.
Anyway, Ytterby is on an island (Resarö) near Stockholm, Sweden. It has – or had – a quarry, which existed for mining feldspar for use in porcelain. But a part-time chemist noticed an odd black rock in the quarry and sent it to full-time chemists for analysis. And it turned out that it contained a bunch of elements not previously identified – elements that actually took the best part of a century for various people to finally isolate and identify. Because sometimes something that looks kind of odd turns out to have a variety of interesting things in it.
One thing I like in particular, incidentally, is that yttrium (not ytterbium, but yttrium) is commonly found in the earth called yttria, which contains sesquioxide of yttrium: Y2O3.