The Sound(s) Of wh

Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not

You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.

Lauren Bacall, To Have And Have Not (1944)

No, your browser hasn’t had a stroke—this post really has wh in its title—that is, the two letters at the start of the word whistle. For most of the English-speaking world, these letters are pronounced like the letter w alone. So the word pairs whether and weather, whales and Wales, which and witch, sound identical—they’re homophones. Because of this, you can often see people mixing up w/wh pairs in their spelling, particularly if one of the pair is unusual, and they’ve only ever heard it spoken, rather than seen in written. For instance, “This snack will only wet your appetite,” (instead of whet); “You haven’t made a wit of difference,” (instead of whit).

I was reminded of this when I ran into a question on Quora: What does the Latin phrase “semper ubi sub ubi” mean? Semper ubi sub ubi doesn’t mean anything in Latin, of course. It’s just a jokey string of words that can be translated individually as “always where under where”, but which the listener can hear and interpret as the injunction, “Always wear underwear”. (Ho ho ho, I hear you say.) This is all explained neatly in the answer to the Quora question, but I was struck by the final paragraph in the respondent’s answer:

One might say this to a Scotsman who is anxious about the proper accoutrements to his kilt.

(Ho ho ho, I hear you say again. Particularly if you’re Scottish.) But the problem is that a Scot is exactly the wrong person to try this Latin pun on—to a Scot, “always where under where” is no more than a source of puzzlement, because in Scottish English we pronounce w and wh differently. So the w/wh homophones listed above are minimal pairs in Scottish English—they’re words that are distinguished by only one sound.

Phonetically, the sound usually associated with the letter w is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /w/ and is called a voiced labial-velar approximant. The labial bit refers to the lips, the velar bit refers to the soft palate, and the approximant bit means that your lips are close together (forming a characteristic “w” moue that’s evident to lip-readers), while the back of your tongue rises to be similarly close to your soft palate. Voiced means that your vocal cords are vibrating while you breathe out to make the sound. But when Scots pronounce wh, they generally use a sound symbolized by /ʍ/, the unvoiced labial-velar fricative. Lips and tongue are in the same position, but this time the vocal cords don’t vibrate—air just passes smoothly through the lips, producing soft, audible friction. In other words, to paraphrase Lauren Bacall, to pronounce wh the Scottish way, you just put your lips together and blow. The usual sound of a Scots wh is pretty much the same as the sound of someone blowing out a candle.

The pronunciation distinction between w and wh isn’t unique to Scottish English–it’s also present in Ireland, and it used to be standard in New Zealand, though it’s fading among younger speakers. In the USA, there’s a broad swathe across the south and east of the country where the distinction still exists, but nowhere where it’s the dominant form of pronunciation.

As you’ll perhaps have guessed from the fact that the w/wh distinction is embedded in the spelling, it was once the case that every English speaker observed this difference in pronunciation. The sound has its origin in a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European consonant, written as kw, which was like a k pronounced with the lips in w position. In Latin, this turned into a sound like a k followed by a w, written as the familiar digraph qu. In the Germanic languages the k softened into something like the fricative sound at the end of Scottish “loch”, which is written in the IPA as /x/. And thence into Old English, where it was spelled hw, and pronounced /xw/.

Perhaps the most famous use of that hw digraph is in the opening word of the Old English epic poem Beowulf: “Hwæt!” This can be literally translated as “What!” but has generally been taken to be some sort of stereotypical injunction along the lines of “Lo!” or “Listen!” (There’s an argument, however, that it never should have been interpreted as an exclamation in the first place, and that the hwæt should be understood as part of the succeeding sentence.)

But however it’s interpreted, hwaet points up something interesting. The Proto-Indo-European kw seems to have been recurrently used at the start of single-word questions, and that pattern has persisted in the Latinate and Germanic descendants of Proto-Indo-European. So we have quid, quare, quando, quam, qua, quis in Latin; and hwæt, hwí, hwanne, (hwó)*, hwǽr, hwa in Old English, which turned into Kipling’s “Six Honest Serving Men” in Modern English: what, why, when, how, where, who.

After arriving in English, the /xw/ sound continued to evolve, its fricative /x/ softening in some dialects towards the huffing sound of the letter h, (written in IPA as /h/), or disappearing entirely to leave the unvoiced /ʍ/ I described above. So depending on your dialect, hw could be pronounced /xw/ or /hw/ or /ʍ/.

And of course the spelling changed, from hw to the familiar wh, probably standardized by Norman French scribes so that it matched other digraphs, like ch and ph, with which they were familiar.

And then came the so-called Wine-Whine Merger, a slow process of pronunciation shift, mainly spanning the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries (but still going on today!), during which most English speakers gave up on the effort to distinguish between wh and w, leaving just a dialectic fringe in Scotland and Ireland (together with some colonial exports) where the distinction was routinely maintained.

In regions where wh sounds different from w, you can still hear all the variants spawned by the original Old English hw. The predominant sound in Scottish English now seems to be /ʍ/, but /hw/ occurs too. You can hear /xw/ in the Hebrides, and the vigorous fricative is also often used when people are pronouncing something emphatically. And there are other variants, too—I hear /ʍw/ when Scots add a bit of voicing as they move into a following vowel, and /xʍ/ occurs, too.

The /xw/ pronunciation was once standard in Scotland, and accounts for one of the many puzzles Scottish proper names present for the uninitiated. When the sound was still in common use in English, British printers sometimes rendered it typographically as quh rather than wh. The practice was slowly abandoned as the fricative disappeared during the Wine-Whine Merger, but persisted for longer in Scotland, where the sound remained in use. Some time around the start of the seventeenth century, the schoolmaster Alexander Hume vigorously defended the quh spelling in his book Of the Orthographie and Congruitie of the Britan Tongue.

To clere this point, and alsoe to reform an errour bred in the south, and now usurped be our ignorant printeres, I wil tel quhat befel my self quhen I was in the south with a special gud frende of myne. Ther rease, upon sum accident, quhither quho, quhen, quhat, etc., sould be symbolized with q or w, a hoat disputation betuene him and me.
[…]
Then (said I) a labial letter can not symboliz a guttural syllab. But w is a labial letter, quho a guttural sound. And therfoer w can not symboliz quho, nor noe syllab of that nature. Here the doctour staying them again (for al barked at ones), the proposition, said he, I understand; the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false.

You can perhaps puzzle through that with the knowledge that quh should be read as wh, but here’s my translation:

To clarify this point, and also to correct an error arising in the South [ie, England], and now wrongfully adopted by our ignorant printers, I will tell what befell me when I was in the South with a special good friend of mine. There arose, by accident, a serious argument between him and me, [as to] whether who, when, what, etc. should be symbolized with a q or w.
[…]
Then (said I) a labial letter cannot symbolize a guttural syllable. But w is a labial letter, [and] who [is] a guttural sound. And therefore w cannot symbolize who, nor any syllable of that nature. Here the doctor silenced them again (for all barked at once). “The proposition,” said he, “I understand; [but] the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false.”

So, at the turn of the seventeenth century, it seems the Scots were still saying /xw/, while the English (or at least, the people with whom Hume found argument) had moved on. But the quh orthography has persisted in several Scottish proper nouns. The little village of Milton of Cultoquhey, for instance, is pronounced cull-TOE-whey. And the clan name Colquhoun has now polished the original /xw/ sound down to a simple /h/, so that it’s pronounced cull-HOON, or (more often) just cuh-HOON.

The pronunciation of wh continues to evolve in Scotland. There’s evidence that some younger speakers in the larger cities are dropping the w/wh distinction entirely. Meanwhile, in the Doric dialect of the Northeast, /ʍ/ has been transformed into /f/, so that (combined with a vowel shift) “where” sounds like far, and “what” sounds like fit. (Visitors to the region often bear an expression of anxious incomprehension.)

Meanwhile, in the erstwhile prestige English accent called Received Pronunciation, one can occasionally hear wh rendered as /hw/. John Wells, in Accents Of English (1982) writes:

But I think it is true to say that those who use it almost always do so as the result of a conscious decision: persuaded that /hw-/ is a desirable pronunciation they modify their native accent [ie Received Pronunciation] in this direction.

Whatever the reason, and despite its rarity in real life, it seems to have become part of the perception of “posh British” speech among non-British speakers of English. Hence, I suppose, the running joke in the TV series Family Guy, in which /hw/ is part of the weird Trans-Atlantic accent affected by the character Stewie Griffin:


* I put hwó in brackets because it’s a reconstructed early form. The attested form in Old English is , already partway towards modern how. How some hw-words lost their /w/ sound is a story for another day.
In Accents Of English, John Wells tells us that the use of /w/ for wh was at first considered a “vulgarism”, and that it crept into “educated speech” only during the eighteenth century. So the English doctor who disagreed with Hume, at the start of the seventeenth century, was presumably making a distinction between Scottish /xw/ and the non-guttural English /hw/.

4 thoughts on “The Sound(s) Of wh”

  1. Dr. Grant, I think if I continue to be the only replier here I’m going to have to start my posts with, “Hey, Abbott!” with the drawn out second syllable…

    I do have some grammar questions I’ve been wanting to ask you for years now, what with your vast knowledge on the matter.

    For instance, is there a name for when one does something *incredibly* ill advised, manages to get away unscathed, and then someone who likes you a lot, most often female, gives you a kersmackity across the face for being stupid?

    That happened to me that time I *thought* I wanted to see a fully grown king cobra. And I did. And he saw me too! It reared up, without coiling, and was taller than I was! That’s close to, or over, 6 meters of highly venomous snake. In a very rural area.

    My host’s wife afterward motioned me closer like she wanted to whisper something in my ear. As the late great Richard Pryor once put it, “Pie-YOW! And it felt like I been shot!” (sic)

    Do you know a good place for me to post online anymore Dr. G? This post is already too long and I had more about another social situation.

  2. Don, I’ve never encountered a word for that specific sequence of events, though it seems like it’s an adult version of someone acting in loco parentis. (Not that anyone in Scotland would risk actually striking a child for anything as minor as endangering their own life, these days. But adults are fair game.)

    As for posting socially online: I’m the wrong person to ask, since I’m doing less and less of it, including having recently walked away from the forum in which we first met.

    1. I looked up in loco parentis and you’re more right than not.

      Also, I didn’t communicate well. My fault. What I mean to ask is do you/can you recommend a place to post stories and works of fiction? I’ve spent most of the lock down trying to learn the Orion’s Arm story well enough to post short stories but I’m still a bit self-conscious presenting something to long time fans. Like trying to write a Star Trek story and not look like a goober. Sort of gave up on the idea.

      But, I wouldn’t mind shooting for a more general story telling forum if you knew of one.

      Mean to post this much sooner but was a little under the weather the last two weeks. Gastroenteritis. My bird feeders being the likely culprit. Apparently my whole life all I’ve ever had was the “stomach flu” and dispepsia. I was “$100 hangover” sick for more than eight days.

      I highly don’t recommend it. (And I bought veterinarian exam gloves and a big apron for working the bird feeders.)

      1. Don, I know there are lots of story-telling fora, but I have zero knowledge of how they work or which one have good reputations. Sorry.

        I’ve had dysentery twice, so can feel your pain.

        Now I need to go and find a beekeeper—a swarm has just arrived in our garden.

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