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Phonological history of wh

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Title: Phonological history of wh  
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Subject: Hwair, Phonological history of English consonants, Whine Up
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Phonological history of wh

The pronunciation of the digraph wh in English has varied with time, and can still vary today between different regions. According to the historical period and the accent of the speaker, it is most commonly realised as /w/, or in those dialects that retain traditional pronunciation, as the consonant cluster /hw/. Before rounded vowels, as in who and whole, it is often realized as /h/. This latter pronunciation is due to a wh-cluster reduction, and is the same sound change that earlier occurred in how in Old English (hence the h spelling) – it happened later in words currently spelt with who- because these previously had a different vowel, and thus did not undergo this change.

The historical pronunciation of this digraph is in most cases /hw/, but in many dialects of English it has merged with /w/, a process known as the "wine–whine merger". In dialects that maintain the distinction, it is generally transcribed [ʍ], and is equivalent to a voiceless [w̥] or [hw̥].

Early history of wh

What is now English wh is thought to have originated as the Proto-Indo-European consonant *. As a result of Grimm's Law, Indo-European voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives in most environments in Germanic languages. Thus the labialized velar stop * initially became presumably a labialized velar fricative * in pre-Proto-Germanic, then probably becoming *[ʍ] in Proto-Germanic proper. The sound was used in Gothic and represented by the symbol known as hwair; in Old English it was spelled as hw. The spelling was changed to wh in Middle English, but the pronunciation remained [ʍ], which is still retained in certain dialects.

Because Proto-Indo-European interrogative words typically began with *, English interrogative words (such as who, which, what, when, where) typically begin with wh. As a result of this tendency, a common grammatical phenomenon affecting interrogative words has been given the name wh-movement, even in reference to languages in which interrogative words do not begin with wh.

Labialization of /h/ and delabialization of /hw/

In the 15th century, historic /h/ was labialized before a rounded vowel, such as /uː/ or /oː/, and came to be written hw. The labialization did not occur in all dialects. Later in many dialects /hw/ was delabialized to /h/ in this same environment, whether or not it was the historic pronunciation; in others, the /h/ was dropped, leaving /w/.

  • who - /huː/ (Old English hwā)
  • whom - /huːm/ (Old English hwǣm)
  • whose - /huːz/ (Old English hwās)

In Kent, the word 'home' is pronounced /woʊm/; the /h/ was labialized to /hw/ before the /oʊ/, and later Kentish became an h-dropping dialect.


Wh-labiodentalization is the merger of /hw/ and the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/. It has occurred in some dialects of Scots, and in Hiberno-English with an Irish Gaelic substrate influence (something which has led to an interesting re-borrowing of whisk(e)y as fuisce, having originally entered English from Scottish Gaelic). In Scots this leads to pronunciations like:

  • whit ("what") - /fɪt/
  • whan ("when") - /fan/

Whine and fine are homophonous /fain/.[1]

Wine–whine merger

The area marked in purple on this map of the southeastern United States denotes the area in which the contrast between the pronunciation of /hw/ and the pronunciation of /w/ is greatest. In most other areas of the United States, the pronunciations have merged to a greater extent.[2][3]

The wine–whine merger is a merger by which voiceless /hw/ is reduced to voiced /w/. It has occurred historically in the dialects of the great majority of English speakers. The resulting /w/ is generally pronounced [w], but sometimes [hw̥]; this may be hypercorrection.

The merger is essentially complete in England, Wales, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and is widespread in the United States and Canada. In accents with the merger, pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, weather/whether, wail/whale, Wales/whales, wear/where, witch/which etc. are homophonous. The merger is not found in Scotland, Ireland, and parts of the U.S. and Canada. The merger (or the lack thereof) is not usually stigmatized except occasionally by very speech-conscious people, although the American television show King of the Hill pokes fun at the issue through character Hank Hill's use of the hypercorrected [hw̥] version in his speech. A similar gag can be found in several episodes of Family Guy, with Brian becoming extremely annoyed by Stewie's over-emphasis of the /hw/ sound in his pronunciation of "Cool hWhip" and "hWil hWheaton".

According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 49),[3] while there are regions of the U.S. (particularly in the Southeast) where speakers keeping the distinction are about as numerous as those having the merger, there are no regions where the preservation of the distinction is predominant (see map). Throughout the U.S. and Canada, about 83% of respondents in the survey had the merger completely, while about 17% preserved at least some trace of the distinction.

The wine–whine merger, although apparently present in the south of England as early as the 13th century,[4] did not become acceptable in educated speech until the late 18th century. While some RP speakers still use /hw/, most accents of England, Wales, West Indies and the southern hemisphere have only /w/.


Phonologically, the sound of the wh in words like whine in accents without the merger is either analyzed as the consonant cluster /hw/, and it is transcribed so in most dictionaries, or as a single phoneme /ʍ/, since it is sometimes realized as the single sound [ʍ]. The primary argument for it being a single phoneme is that /h/ does not form any other consonant clusters apart from /hj/ in words like 'hue' /hjuː/, and that can be analyzed as /h/ plus the diphthong /juː/ rather than as a cluster. Arguments for it being a consonant cluster are:

  • that the single-phoneme argument is not convincing: only /s/ and /r/ form many clusters, and /ʃ/, for example, is only found as /ʃr/ apart from Yiddish borrowings;
  • that historically there were several other h-clusters (/hn, hr, hl/), of which /hw/ is the last remaining;
  • that speakers' intuition is that it is two consonants;

See also


  1. ^ This phenomenon has also occurred in most varieties of Maori.
  2. ^ Based on and the map at Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 50).
  3. ^ a b Labov, William; Sharon Ash; Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. ISBN . 
  4. ^ Minkova, Donka (2004). "Philology, linguistics, and the history of /hw/~/w/". In In Anne Curzan and Kimberly Emmons, eds.,. Studies in the History of the English language II: Unfolding Conversations. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 7–46. ISBN . 
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