Pronouncing Words that Begin with WH

By Maeve Maddox

Maria Cypher wrote:

Can you weigh in on whether the “h” in -wh- words (e.g., whether, white, overwhelmed) should be pronounced? This seems to be a regional thing, but I say yes, yes, yes! (And then my friends and relatives mock me.)

I’m with you, Maria. At least I am on many words that begin with the letter combination wh.

Many of our wh words descend from Old English originals that began with the spelling hw:

hwa (who)
hwaem (whom)
hwael (whale)
hwaether (whether)
hwit (white)

The sound [hw] is an aspirate, rather like the sound one makes when blowing out a candle. It’s a sound I teach for the phonogram wh. Even if one speaks a dialect that pronounces the spellng wh [hw] as [w] in words like white and whet, learning the wh as a phonogram distinct from the letter w and applying it as a “spelling pronunciation” is useful in learning to spell correctly. Not knowing the difference can result in writing that startles or misleads:

By 1600, the British and Dutch had broken the Spanish and Portuguese naval hegemony, freeing up the spice trade. But trade in spices did not wet the North American palate for hot chili peppers.–YaleGlobalOnline

WordNavigator.com lists 941 English words that being with the wh spelling. Many of them are different forms of the same word, for example whistle and whistling. Many are words of interest only to Scrabble players. Eliminating the Scrabble words, multiple forms of the same word, and obsolete spellings, I narrowed the list to 70 or fewer.

Of this short list, some are words in which the wh has mutated to an “h” sound (delabialization of /hw/), ex. who, whom, and whore. (I can remember the first time I came across that third word–I was in high school–and went around trying to pronounce it with a [hw]. Talk about being laughed at…)

Words like white, whet, and whale belong to what’s called the “wine/whine merger.” For most English speakers, the wh in these words is pronounced as a plain w [w]. Maria and I are in the minority. And I’d guess that we don’t pronounce the same wh words alike.

In reviewing my short list of wh words, I find that I’m not at all consistent. For example, I would pronounce whizz with the [hw] in this sentence…

The arrow whizzed through the air.

…but I’d probably pronounce it [w] in this sentence:

Charlie stepped behind the hedge to take a whizz.

The only reason I can think of is that I heard the second use of the word in conversation before seeing it written.

Then there’s whiz as in “whiz kid.” That, for me, would probably take a [w] sound.

Here are some words that I know I pronounce with the breathy [hw] sound…
whale
whinny
whine
while
whether
whisper
whistle
whiskers

…but I think I may pronounce these words with a plain w sound:
whisky
whey
whittle
white

Ah, the mystery of language!

Here’s a link to all you could ever want to know about The Phonological History of wh.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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18 Responses to “Pronouncing Words that Begin with WH”

  • nutmeag

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lich59xsjik Family Guy’s take on the issue. Skip ahead to 0:55 for the good stuff.

  • thebluebird

    Hmmm…I think that pronunciation aside, I would spell it “wiz” kid, with “wiz” being short for “wizard.” Although in the case of someone going off in the woods (or diapers) to do his bizness, then I would call it “whizz” kid.

  • Nils

    The Northern pronunciation of a word like like ‘whale’, with an aspiration at the beginning of the word that varies from licht palatal to gruff alveolar, sits geographically between (South English) ‘w{h}ale’ and (Norwegian) ‘kval’. Similarly in ‘where’ vs ‘kvar, kor’.

    The lighter or zero aspiration to the South and the palato-alveolar stop-consonant to the North are also found in words like ‘church’ vs ‘kirke’ and even in mixed words like ‘screech’ and ‘shriek’, which have apparently arisen on the linguistic boundary between the anglo-Saxon and Norse spheres of influence.

  • Brad K.

    In your quotation, “did not wet” caught my attention. I would have used “whet” as in putting an edge on a knife with a whet stone. Wetting something down usually washes off stuff, in my thinking, so “wet the ..” would be more like douse or diminish.

    And now I am going to spend the day wondering, “Do I use the ‘hw’ or ‘w’ sound for whistle, and for while? Next thing I will start humming the Disney polka, “Its a small, small world.”

    *shudder*

    Thanks, I think.

  • b2j2

    I go with the “hw” sound for all of the last 12 examples, but understand confusion caused by a little ditty about a “wooden whistle”.

    I can remember having a problem with the word “character,” thinking it was two different words, one written, pronounced with “ch” as in “church,” and the other spoken, with unknown spelling.

  • Grace S.

    I agree with both of you that this is most likely a regional phenomenon, and one with connections to whatever the speaker was taught early in the process of learning to read. I distinctly remember being taught to place my hand in front of my mouth to feel the expulsion of breath to pronounce [wh] as opposed to [w]. I still pronounce many of the “wh” words with a very slight expulsion of breath–partly by force of habit and precision, and partly because I’ve always been conscious of the connection between spelling and pronunciation.

  • dhairaz

    My country, English is secondary language. Those days when I was schooling, my teacher has stress on “pronouncation” especially on difficult word. Until now I am still learning “pronouncation”.

  • Karla

    It must be a British thing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in anywhere I’ve been in the US (Midwest, Northwest, New England, East coast, West coast, Florida, Georgia, Texas…) pronounce “the breathy hw” sound. Whale, whinny, whine, while, whether (and weather), whisper, whistle, whiskers, whiskey, whey, whittle, and white, all have the same /w/ sound.

  • Peter

    And in some parts of Scotland, “wh” is pronounced “f”…!

  • Djelloul

    Help me. I am a teacher but I need to learn English ( Pronouciation) Thanks

  • Tony Hearn

    Don’t start me on the common error ‘pronOUnciation’ for ‘pronunciation’! As to ‘wh-‘, I as English am used to noticing Americans and Scots pronouncing the aspirate, but among Englanders you would be though t rather posh these days to make a point of doing so. My parents’ generation, born in the twenties, were the last to do so as a general rule, and I suspect that even then many here did not. Add to which the more general question of dropping the aspirate altogether, which is an increasing feature of much casual spoken English here in England. Anyone noticed it elsewhere?

  • Mary Jo

    I just realized that my husband of 14 years pronounces “whale” as “wale” – He’s from Rhode Island
    I, on the other hand, remember being taught to hold my hand in front of my mouth to feel the air when pronouncing “wh” words and I’m from East Tennessee.
    If it took me 14 years to notice, I would imagine that one would have to be intent on listening for the difference to hear it.
    Additionally, speech in the Appalachians tends to be closer to Old English than the rest of the country.

  • Michael Strangways Price

    Regarding the pronunciation (NEVER pronounciation!) of wh- words, H.G. Fowler (Modern English Usage) notes that the inclusion of the h is most common with Scottish and Irish speakers. My ancient Chambers’s English Dictionary (published in Edinburgh circa 1913) gives the phonetic pronunciations as hwat, hwere, hwy, and so on, and I have always followed this pattern, having been taught to do so almost from infancy. Not to do so would be anathema to me. As for aitch and its pronunciation, will people seriously speak of the ‘haitch’-bone? If the word was meant to be pronounced otherwise, the dictionaries would include the h, which of course they do not! The origin of this mispronunciation is well known.

  • Emily

    I’m fourteen years old, I live in England, and I was brought to this website as a result of my mother (who is German) and my great-aunt (who is Scottish) arguing over the pronunciation of words involving ‘wh’. My aunt believes that the only proper way to speak English is to pronounce the ‘wh’ in every single word that contains that pattern. My mother disagrees completely.
    I don’t know who is right to be honest, and I find it ironic that neither of them are actually from England (don’t think of me as racist for saying this, but it is the ENGLISH language). I have also noted that when I go to Scotland, more of the population pronounce the h. And the same occurred when I went to Ireland 😀
    I don’t think it necessary to put emphasis on the h, and I find that most people in my area in my generation and others near to it don’t bother either.

  • thebluebird11

    @Emily, I am amazed and encouraged that a 14-year-old is posting on this site. I have an 18-year-old daughter, and surfing grammar sites is not on her “to-do” list. You are obviously intelligent, and, off-topic for this post, I think you used the word “ironic” correctly (which I can’t seem to do, LOL).
    I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, a regional thing, a combination, or what. Both my parents were born in New York (USA), and so was I. My mother was an English major and chastised me mercilessly for not blowing out candles when pronouncing “Why,” “When,” Whale,” etc. The whole issue seriously disgusted me, and I would never in a million years pronounce the H (“HWY,” “HWEN,” “HWALE”). I’m sorry, but it sounds pretentious to me. Perhaps there was a spelling issue (not that English ever cared), but “wy” looks weird (and is also the abbreviation for our state of Wyoming), and “wen” and “wale” are words.
    Anyway, nice post 🙂 Happy new year!

  • Reefy

    I went to a very prestigious private grammar school in Newport and they taught that the “wh” is aspirated. All the people I know who pronounce it in a non-aspirated way are middle class or lower. Just my observations.

  • Teeb

    Like the author, my use of the aspirated “wh” sound seems to vary by word and situation. My parents both use the aspirated sound more than me, and my kids don’t use it at all – in fact, my “wh” is the basis for some inter-generational mockery (per the “Family Guy” episode noted above). Interesting to personally witness the evolution of our language.

  • Sally

    I was practically raised by nuns, and they taught us to “whistle” out our “wh” sounds. If we pronounced “what” as “wat,” they would write on the board “not W-A-T.” I get teased at work because I’m the only one who pronounces the “h” in “wh” words.

    BTW, I “whistle” out the word, “white.”

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