Pronouncing Words that Begin with WH
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:
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…
…but I think I may pronounce these words with a plain w sound:
Ah, the mystery of language!
Here’s a link to all you could ever want to know about The Phonological History of wh.
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