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More from the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House.

I've noticed in these sort of movies, when some very upper-class speakers talk, like the lawyer in the series, Mr. Tulkinghorn, they have a distinct way of pronouncing "wh" in what and when; the "wh-" sounds seems to be prefaced with an almost sharp whistling "h", so that it sounds like they are really saying hwat and hwhen.

I'd like to know three things: First, what is the specific name of this phoneme, as would be given by linguists? Secondly, what's the difference in articulation, in terms of tongues and throats, between this hwh- and wh-? And finally, the most difficult question of all: Is the hwhat these upper-class speakers produce a direct-line preservation of Anglo-Saxon pronunciation, through these many centuries? [I ask because I have seen the construction "hwæt hwæt" used playfully as an example of Anglo-Saxon speech, and figured that the "hw-" sound must have prominent in that language.]

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9  
Please no "obligatory links" to cool whip. (^_^) –  RegDwigнt May 17 '11 at 18:51
    
@Reg Beat me to the punch. –  KitFox May 17 '11 at 19:03
    
Sarah Silverman (3:30): "My mother speaks very well and says, like, /ʍɛn/ and /ʍɛər/." (Manchester, New Hampshire) –  Talia Ford Oct 29 '13 at 2:11
    
Uticensis, that's strange. I've heard that pronunciation from Americans with southern US accents. –  Tristan r Mar 15 at 13:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Only a few dialects maintain the distinction between /hw/ and /w/, that is, distinguishing witch from which, wale from whale, and wine from whine. The WH sound, a voiceless labiovelar approximant, is written as /hw/ or sometimes /ʍ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. The W sound is a voiced labiovelar approximant. The difference between the two is that the WH sound is voiceless, meaning it is produced without vibration of the vocal cords (at least at the beginning), whereas the W sound is produced with voicing (vibration of the vocal cords) throughout.

Wikipedia has a good article summarizing the phonological history of the WH sound.

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I believe that the hwat is actually "proper English" and most of us slur it. At least that's what my (American) english teacher in elementary school would have us believe.

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5  
I love how prescriptivists can claim a pronunciation/phrasing/word is "wrong", even when fully aware that most people use it. –  Jon Purdy May 18 '11 at 2:02

The sound /hw/ as a sequence of two clear separate phonemes is an affectation. In the few dialects that preserve the distinction, the sound is the voiceless w, or /ʍ/.

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I do believe that is what the asker was referring to—the simple unvoiced /ʍ/. For someone who is not a linguist or phonetician and does not have the sound in their phone[m/t]ic inventory, it descriptively sounds rather like /hw/, and I am not aware of any language or any accent that actually distinguishes /hw/ from /ʍ/. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 15 at 14:44
    
@JanusBahsJacquet yes, sorry, my answer was not so well-written. I just wanted to clarify that, at least in the US, some speakers very deliberately add a /h/ before /w/ in formal speech, but almost none of these speakers have this as a feature of the native dialect. I imagine the number of "wh-affectors" (who tend to make /hw/) outweighs the number of "born wh-ers;" (among whom I have only ever heard /ʍ/); that's what I was trying to communicate to OP with this answer, not that there is a phonemic distinction between the two sounds. –  hunter Mar 15 at 14:49
    
as for Britain, the wikipedia suggests that any w/wh distinction is an affectation as well –  hunter Mar 15 at 14:49
    
It’s not. It’s a natural part of some English dialects, and it’s very common in Scotland (and Ireland, but that’s not Britain). I’m not entirely sure about Wales off the top of my head, but Welsh does have /ʍ/, so it would make sense that Anglowelsh has it too. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 15 at 14:52

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