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There seems to be only a few words starting with the 'gw' sound, though the only ones I can think of are proper nouns, for example, Gwyneth. Are there any non-name words starting with a 'gw'? Is there any relationship between a real 'gw' and a 'gu' pronounced as 'gw' (say, iguana)?

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Can you explain what you mean by "relationship"? The "gw" in Gwyneth is pronounced exactly the same as the "gu" in iguana. – Kosmonaut Apr 2 '11 at 19:45
When I said 'relationship', I was just referring to the relationship between the words' originals. For example, Gwyneth is (I believe) Celtic and iguana is Spanish. – dave Apr 2 '11 at 20:31
up vote 8 down vote accepted

In the particular cases you mention, they're not related, though they potentially could be, sort of. I'll try and explain:

  • the /gw/ of "Gwyneth" (and a few other names) comes from Welsh, which appears to have an alternation between /w/ and /gw/ at the start of words (so "Winnie" and "Gwinnie" are essentially variants of the same name); such variation occurs in other languages including Spanish, so e.g. "huevo" and "guevo" ("egg") are variants of the same word;
  • the /gw/ of "iguana" is the result of a process in various Romance languages whereby a high vowel is automatically diphthongised with a following vowel-- this process occurs fairly automatically in French and Spanish. To to a Spanish speaker, the /gw/ of "iguana" isn't a special combination as such-- it's just the result of an automatic process that occurs any time "u" and "a" occur one before the other.

By these two routes, the combination has accidentally entered English in these words. However, arguably the processes are related: arguably a contributing factor to the [g] sound in the first case is diphthongisation of the [u] vowel.

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As others have noted on Alain’s and my answers, these particular sources — fairly transparent borrowings from Welsh, Spanish, and occasionally French — seem to account for pretty much all the examples. In particular, none seem “natively English” — i.e. deriving from Old English or similar Germanic/Norse roots. Do you know why this might be the case? Did /gw/ ever occur in the phonology of Germanic languages? – PLL Apr 2 '11 at 20:55
@PLL: It seems the Proto-Indo-European word-initial voiced labiovelar, gw-, became g- in Proto-Germanic in the vicinity of u, and b elsewhere; it survived only after nasals in some cases. Wherever a new gw emerged owing to new changes, it was transformed into g again in PG. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Germanic_language#Labiovelars – Cerberus Apr 3 '11 at 5:06

There are quite a few words beginning with the /gw/ sound, spelled with gu-. (Neil Coffey’s answer excellently explains why the two different spellings exist.) To name just a few well-known ones:

  • guano (and many derivatives: guanine, etc.)
  • guacamole
  • guiro (a percussion instrument)
  • guar (guar gum is a common stabilising ingredient in foods)

And of course many demonyms:

  • Guatemalan
  • Guadeloupean


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Still, none of 'native' English provenance. – Mitch Apr 2 '11 at 20:16

(Replying to the first question.)

Yes, there are some words which are non-names but many are obsolete. From the OED (I didn't write them all):

  1. gwacum obs. form of guaiacum.
  2. gwairdoun obs. Sc. form of guerdon.
  3. gwakin see #1
  4. gwan, g'wan U.S. and Irish Dial. pronunciation of "go on"
  5. gwane, gwayn obs. ff. guana, the Iguana.
  6. gwarri var. guarri.
  7. gwash Anglicized form of gouache.
  8. gwely - [Welsh.] A. A social unit that was once traditional in Wales, consisting of four generations of one family in which the great-grandfather, the head of the group, had proprietary right over its landed property. B. The land held by the members of such a group.
  9. Gwentian - n. and a. |ˈgwɛntɪən| [f. the name Gwent + -ian.] A. Noun a. An inhabitant of Gwent in Monmouthshire, historically a Welsh principality. b. The dialect of this region. B. adjective - Of or pertaining to Gwent.
  10. gwerddoun, gwerdon see #2
  11. gwerre - variant of guerre, obsolete.
  12. gwidege - var. guides, obsolete, the jugular vein.
  13. gwis - obs. Sc. form of goose.
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Notice that none of these are native English words. – Neil Coffey Apr 2 '11 at 20:02
With "English" you mean strictly native from England? – Alenanno Apr 2 '11 at 20:04
@Alain: What did you modify? I was trying to understand but I see no differences... Just to know. – Alenanno Apr 2 '11 at 20:27
@Alenano. If you click on the small link "n mins ago", you can see edits. You wrote "I didn't wrOte them all". I simply changed to "write". When I was born the Fate said "Thou will only see other people's typos". – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 2 '11 at 20:31
@Alain: My nickname is Alenanno (2 N's), anyway +1 for correction and about the "# mins ago" link. Interesting quote too... – Alenanno Apr 2 '11 at 20:34

Gwiniad or Gwyniad - a whiting, the name of various fishes, fr. gwyn white.

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gwyniad, n. pronounced /ˈgwɪnɪæd/ < Welsh gwyniad, < gwyn white. A fish of the salmon or trout kind (Coregonus Pennantii) with white flesh, found in lakes, esp. in Bala lake on the Dee. – tchrist Apr 3 '11 at 12:37

Don't forget this one:

guano |ˈgwänō| noun ( pl. -nos) the excrement of seabirds, occurring in thick deposits notably on the islands off Peru and Chile, and used as fertilizer. [NOAD]


guacamole |ˌgwäkəˈmōlē| noun a dish of mashed avocado mixed with chopped onion, tomatoes, chili peppers, and seasoning.

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C'est la guerre. war, warrior; guerrilla. guard/ian, ward/en, etc: same origin, different path. William/Guillaume le Conquerant. guise/wise (connected to wit, wizard and Latin v/uideo, v/uisum) guile/wile (connected to victim, Latin v/uictima). Lots more.

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Michael, any chance you could edit this so it makes sense and can be the canonical answer to the question? That's what all Stack Exchange answers should aspire to. At the moment the only sentence it contains is the last one, which doesn't actually add much. – Andrew Leach May 22 '13 at 17:44
OK. As far as I know there are no native words with initial /gw/. My post was meant to show how sound changes/disappearances and then their written representation can completely hide etymological connections, eg guise, wise and video. The Indo-European originals seem to have been with w-. Germanic and Celtic sometimes added g-. Sometimes both, one or the other or neither have been preserved: wise, guise, guide, video (Latin /wideo/), idea (something you/the Greeks "saw" in their mind). (You may be the sort to delight in discovering vine, wine and oenology have the same etymology.) – Michael May 25 '14 at 15:54

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