The Phonogram WH

By Maeve Maddox

A reader commenting on Wile vs While wrote:

Modern speakers and writers have a problem with “W” words such as “while” and “wile” (another example: “whale,” “wale,” and “wail”) because there is no longer a distinction made between the way “wh” and “w” are pronounced.

Not all American speakers distinguish between the sounds of whine and wine, but many still do. There are advantages to teaching the distinction, even in regions where the difference has been lost in the local dialect.

Wh represents the sound one makes when blowing out a candle: [wh].

The number of English words that begin with wh is not large, and even speakers who distinguish between the initial sounds of Wales and whales do not pronounce wh as [wh] in every word that begins with the wh spelling.

For speakers of dialects that still distinguish between the pronunciation of which and witch, the following words begin with the aspirated sound [wh]:

whack
whale
wharf
what
wheat
wheel
wheeze
when
where
whet
whether
which
whiff
Whig
while
whim
whimper
whip
whirl
whisk
whisker
whisky
whisper
whit
white
whoop
why

In the following words, the spelling wh represents the sound [h].

who
whom
whole
whose
wholly
whore

What linguists call the “wine-whine merger” is no doubt destined to prevail in the United States. Nevertheless, teaching the aspirated sound of wh is an aid to spelling mastery.

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14 Responses to “The Phonogram WH”

  • R. E. Hunter

    Interesting. We (in Eastern Canada, decades ago) were never taught that there was a difference between “wh” and “w”. I grew up pronouncing them the same, and only recently realized that some people pronounce the “wh” differently (the way you describe).

  • Dale A. Wood

    Here is a close and tricky one for you. Do you pronounce both of these the same or not: “when” and “WENN” ?
    There was a TV series named “Remember WENN?” and there was a powerful Negro-owned and operated AM radio station in Birmingham, Alabama, named WENN. (I think that WENN-FM might still exist in or close to Birmingham.) Those letters were chosen to stand for W plus Entertainment Negro National, and it was a very influential radio station in the South and wherever its signal reached at night. This station also did well financially for decades, until most radio broadcasting moved to the FM band (a system with a shorter range).

    I say that the pronunciations of “when” and “WENN” are somewhat different, but the difference is quite small. The first one should be said “hwen”, but that “h” nearly disappears.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    My mother was born and raised in Brooklyn by her immigrant parents (Poland/Russia). Although her first language was Yiddish, which was what my g-parents spoke at home, she spoke flawless English with something of a Brooklyn accent, was an English major in college and a career educator, and very proud of these accomplishments. She was very strict about proper English and taught me the difference between W and WH, but I don’t remember that she made any real effort to distinguish between them in her own speech on a regular basis. Personally, I always thought it was pretentious to make such a big deal of “blowing” for the WH sound. It’s a physical effort that is not worth it except maybe if I’m really shocked or angry, raise my voice and say “WHAT?!”
    As for pronunciation being helpful as a spelling mnemonic, well…I can’t go around pronouncing words as they are spelled just so I can remember how to spell them. U k-now what I mee-ann?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Well, I was raised by an English teacher in the southern states, and I had some good English teachers in school.
    I learned to say { who, whom, whose, what, when, where, which, why, and wherefore } with the “hw” sound at the beginning, and this was illustrated in our English textbooks, too. I have a very good visual memory, and I can remember that page because it had a drawing of this situation on it. (I really meant it with “illustrated”.)

    The only exception among the interrogatories and the relative pronouns is in “how” and its close relatives like “however”. Just to be humorous, that is “how” as in “How now brown cow?”

    Lots of the textbook publishing market in the U.S., especially in the South and in the West, has been dominated by the choices made by the school textbook board in Texas because that is the largest and most populous state in the middle of the country, and its choices have been unified for so long. Since I came from a Southeastern state, I get the impression that I probably had Texas-style textbooks. Hence: HWo, HWat, HWen, HWere, HWy, How.

    People from places like England, Scotland, and Canada might not know about all that.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    For those of you who are Canadians:
    Keep in mind the name of the town (city?) of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. It is pronounced Hwitehorse, with the “hw” sound at the beginning. Hence, both syllables sound like they begin with “h”.

    “Whitehorse” always makes me think of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Now we need to think of more Canadian places with “color” words in their names.
    In the United States, we have lots of those, including ones with Spanish roots, too: Blacksburg, Brown’s Ferry, the Red River, Orange County, Greensboro, Bluefield, White Sulfur Springs, Mesa Verde, Rio Blanco, the Colorado River, the White Mountains.
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve

    Bluebird,
    ” I can’t go around pronouncing words as they are spelled just so I can remember how to spell them.”

    A spelling mnemonic is just that, a mental trick for learning. In my dialect, “often” is pronounced “offen.” I spell it correctly because I learned the “spelling pronunciation” when I was young. I don’t have to go around saying it with a “t” in order to remember how to spell it. Once a word is learned, the mnemonic is no longer needed.

  • thebluebird11

    @Maeve, I too pronounce it “offen,” but never spent even one-tenth of a second giving thought as to how to remember the proper spelling. I’m very blessed to have been an excellent speller all my life and I feel quite sorry for people who have difficulty with it. I can usually see a word once and remember how to spell it; there are really very few words that trip me up, certainly not routine everyday words like when or whales. I also certainly know the difference, at least by context, if someone is talking about when or wen, whales or Wales, so what I’m saying is that this mnemonic (ie “correct” pronunciation) could work for, say, someone who is ESL, which is fine. But for me, it is unnecessary and sounds pretentious coming out of my mouth, so it’s all W to me! 🙂

  • venqax

    I really can’t begin to describe how disturbing the so-called, “whine-wine” merger is. Not only was I never taught that there was no difference between whales and Wales, such a confusion never even crossed my mind. The article on this site that lists “whether and weather” as homonyms caused me to pause and figure it mus be a mistake, or something suggested by someone with a hearing disability or speech impediment. And I swear I hear it all the time (in careful speech, not necessarily when people speak quickly or at conversational speed). Even the word “weapon” which is often mispronounced the OTHER direction– wheapon. It is still taught in the ESL classes that I’m aware of. I really don’t know how or why this idea started in America, or how it is defended. We need language that is even MORE muddled and imprecise? Really? Next I assume is the true-through, ten-then merger. Why bother with those pesky TH sounds. And there’s 2 of them, FGS! And, like the HW, they are really hard for non-English speakers and that, of course, must be our prime consideration in English– foreign learners and lazy people. People SO lazy, they can’t even huff an H. Pathetic.

    While we’re at eliminating phonemes and diphthongs and such, let’s not forget some of the really bothersome ones:

    The crew-cue merger, exhibited in Febyooary
    The brand-band merger in libary
    The flee-fuel merger of nucular and nuculous…

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Venqax that “whether” and “weather” are not homonyms, and they should not be pronounced as such, and they certainly should not be listed as examples of such. That is simply wrong. “Whether” is pronounced as “hwether”, whether someone likes it or not.

    Thus, we can add “whether” to my earlier list of words that are interrogatories**. We can list them in alphabetical order by their third letter: {what, when, where, whether, which, who, whom, whose, why}, plus all of the longer words that start with these, such as {whatever, whenever, whereby, whichever, whoever, whoever}.
    **This words are also used to introduce relative clauses.

    I can give an example sentence: “Whether you like it or not, English is a mostly Germanic language in its grammar, though much (not most) of its vocabulary comes from French, Latin, and Greek.”
    English is definitely a hybrid language, and it draws a lot of its strength from that.
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    venqax – how about “third-turd”? Ask an Irishman!

  • venqax

    Roberta B: That is very true, but that is Ireland’s problem (well, one of them). Likewise the whine-wine abomination should be a British– more precisely, I think, English– problem. The Scots, bless them, still know how to say HWisky. It’s spread in America in the last decades really should be on the CDC’s radar, like other viral epidemics that threaten the public health.

  • AlexB

    Venqax: I don’t think as many English people as you think have a problem with their ‘wh’s and ‘w’s.

  • venqax

    AlexB: I hope you’re right. The reason I said that is because most linguistic maps I’ve seen say that the wh sound is gone completely– the whine-wine merger is complete– in most all of the UK save Scotland to some degree. Most lingusits say it’s taken over the US except a few places like th south. Perhaps like you, I don’t hear it nearly so often, especially from careful speakers. Hwy this is I have no idea.

  • Shing

    People still speak the WH sound.

    Mostly when they are angry and deliberately speak in slow emphasis.

    For example:
    People may use “wy” normally. But “whhhhy”.

    If you always says “where” with the [WH], you always sound slow and angry.
    Shorter is hipper and more sound-biting.

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