Why are there two ways to write /w/?

Why are there two ways to write /w/?

Is that a <w> or <wh>? How often have you heard that from your student? How do you explain the difference? Do they really sound different? Let’s take a deep dive into this confusing topic! 

To better understand the confusion of these two spellings,  we need to remember the English language is constantly changing. We have to look at the history of spelling combined with the pronunciation of graphemes. I am referring to American English in this article when discussing how we speak now. 

Hundreds of years ago <u> represented <v>; you would find <u> represented both vowel and consonant sounds. There was no <w> at this time. In Old English, the rune wynn/wen <ƿ> was also used as /w/. When <ƿ> was dropped, double <v>s were used; eventually, the double <v>s were combined to form the letter <w>! In the grand scheme of things, <w> was the 23rd or 24th letter to be introduced into the alphabet. Pretty cool, right? 

So <wh> is even cooler yet! I have read it is referred to as “an inversion, a kind of institutional mistake.”  Are you curious? Well, here it is; in Old English, several words used the cluster <hw>, such as hwæt  for what. They were pronounced with an initial /h/. In Middle English, the sound changed to /w/ and the spelling to <wh>. At that time, the handful of words beginning with <w>, such as w(h)ip were changed to <wh> too. The switch to <wh> from <hw> may have had something to do with the other <h> clusters for continuity purposes. 

Additionally, there was a group of words that started with <h> in Old English that changed to <wh> during Middle English that retained the initial /h/. These contain the <wh> spelling before a rounded vowel. They include: who, whom, whose, whole, whore. 

So the next question is, do we still hear the archaic /h/ in words beginning with <wh>? Many people will argue we have a little puff of /h/ when saying words like when. I know I don’t speak that way,  so what do the experts say? As in the reading world where no one agrees on much, it is the same with the pronunciation of <wh>. However, what most people do agree with is that if you are in the southern states, you may have a bit of an initial /h/ in your <wh> words. As for the rest of us, there is unlikely much difference in sounds. 

As for teaching our students, I first teach /w/ with <w>. I then add the consonant cluster <wh>. Since it is impossible to hear the difference with most English speakers where I live, I don’t spend much time on this cluster. I do tell my students <w> is their first choice. I always teach the question words, when, why, and which, along with the irregular words, what, where, and who.  

I would love to hear how you teach the consonant cluster <wh>!

Happy /w/ing! 

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Terri Nelson - February 12, 2023

This is very helpful!! Thank you, Pam, for sharing the historical reason for ‘wh’ !! I hope students will find some of your explanation interesting and useful!!
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Hi Terri! I am so glad you thought the topic was interesting! While it is way too much for some students it is a great reminder to us that the English language becomes easier to teach when WE know the background story!


Arlene Sonday - February 11, 2023

Nice article.

Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Hey Arlene! Thanks for taking the time to read this!

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