October 15, 1999
Dave Maxwell wrote:
I was taken aback to learn from a competitor's "Word of the Day" that the first word in White Elephant was pronounced "wit" (long i). It had always been "hwit" to me. I checked my Random House Unabridged and read that the first pronunciation was "hwit" and the second "wit." I then polled the household: the two children (14 and 18) said "wit," my wife "hwit" (the dog didn't have an opinion). . . . "Hwot" was the original pronunciation and when/where did it change? Is there a regional preference? . . . And why is who only "hoo" and not also "woo"?
Your family (including the dog) is a delightful reflection of the real English-speaking world. And thanks to you, we have the sounds of the day--illustrating yet another case of an established pronunciation quietly slipping into oblivion, this time "hw" in words spelled with wh at the beginning of a syllable.
The use of "hw" is understandable; it is a relic of the Old English forms, which were spelled with hw. Sometime during the Middle English period (c1150-c1475), the h and the w switched positions, while the pronunciation did not. wh is the spelling retained today.
In dialects (either regional or generational) that use the pronunciation "hw," there is a clear audible distinction between pairs like where and wear, when and wen, and which and witch. Those who pronounce all of these words with "w" depend on the context to distinguish meanings, usually with little or no difficulty.
Long considered the norm, "hw" was, until the mid-twentieth century, the only pronunciation shown in both American and British dictionaries. It appeared in one of the first such works to show pronunciations at all, John Walker's "A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language." In the introduction, Walker stated unequivocally that "w before h is pronounced as if it were after the h, as hoo-y, why, hoo-en, when, &c."
Other major dictionaries followed suit, showing "hw" at the wh words. It was not until the 1960s that virtually every major dictionary publisher in the U.S. acknowledged the increasing use of "w" in these words by showing both pronunciations. They are still doing so. However, many current British dictionaries, including the "New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" (1993) and the "Collins English Dictionary" (1986), have dropped the "hw" entirely, showing only "w." For the most part, they have gone directly from "hw" to "w," eliminating the interim phase that shows both, the phase still characteristic of both American dictionaries and American speech.
Modern dictionaries therefore reflect the fact that the traditional "hw" pronunciation can no longer be described, as it was by Arthur J. Bronstein in his 1960 text "Pronunciation of American English," as "the normal American pronunciation of all wh words, except who, whom, whose, whole, whore, whoop, and their derivatives." These, of course, are said with initial "h." (I have not yet been able to track down the reason for this. Wendalyn speculates that "hw" and "oo" so close together, with so much going on the back of the mouth, makes saying something like "hwoo" just too difficult.)
Note that even then Bronstein reported that "hw" is "not regularly used . . . in the speech of most in New York City and in certain other sections of the East." He added, with more than a little prescience, that "w" seems to be gaining in popularity, particularly in urban areas and among younger people."
My own speech echoes the larger pattern and is not untypical. I grew up using "hw," and still do. It is likely to occur for me in words like overwhelm, somewhat, wherewithal, or whimsical. It has vanished in my rapid, casual speech, especially in common words like what, where, and when. And, if I may interpret this as a bellwether, I have never, never heard a teenager utter the ubiquitous dismissive response Whatever! with an initial "hw."
As with so many of these fading pronunciations, the use of "hw" is fraught with sociolinguistic implications. People tend to have strong feelings about how things are said. Despite its increasing rarity, some people associate "hw" with educated, desirable, elegant speech. Those who use it are reluctant to let it go or see it go. And some who do not use it would like to emulate it. At the same time, as we have noted, it is in England, the home of the archetypally elegant Received Pronunciation, that "hw" is disappearing even more rapidly than in the United States.
For those who want to change their dialects, for whatever reason, a caveat: Beware of hypercorrection, the inappropriate attempt to replace seemingly incorrect forms with ones that seem correct but are not. Hypercorrection can prove embarrassing and counterproductive. A couple of decades ago, there was a TV commercial in which a sprightly young woman, dressed in a plain long black dress with long black sleeves, wearing a tall black conical hat, and carrying a broom, bounced in front of the camera and said perkily, "Hello, I'm Whanda the Which!" Wanda the Witch could not at that point be taken seriously. I am happy to say that I do not remember the name of the product.
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