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This something may be innately obvious to native speakers; however, to many outsiders, the difference is elusive. I only recently realized the difference and still have a hard time to distinguishing them. Please explain how to pronounce these two letters correctly, specifically lip/tongue movement (no pun intended).

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Related: Correct pronunciation of the letter “v”. –  RegDwigнt Jul 4 '11 at 20:39
    
Note that words from other languages may have different rules for the pronunciations (especially of W). For example, 'cwm' in Welsh, or Weimar or Wolfgang in German. –  Jonathan Leffler Jul 4 '11 at 22:14
    
@Anderson If you make the 'v' sound correctly and hold it, it should sound like a bee buzzing - ask a native speaker to show you what I mean. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jul 4 '11 at 22:40
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I have noticed that Swedes have a tendency to mix up V and W a lot. Might be related to the fact that the W has almost disappeared in modern Swedish and that both letters are pronounced the same way. I am curious -- what other nationalities have a hard time distinguishing the two sounds? –  reg Jul 5 '11 at 4:33
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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

W: With your tongue at rest (not touching teeth or lips, etc), pucker your mouth into a small "o" as if you are going to whistle (only not quite so hard, or it will tire you out), and let your voice take over.

V: With your tongue at rest, pronounce a voiced "ffffff" sound. My enunciation of this proceeds by putting my top teeth against he inside of my bottom lip and blowing. I voice it for a "v" sound, meaning that my vocal cords vibrate making for a noisier, louder sound..

I realize that different people pronounce it differently. For the record, I am a native American-English speaker living in Pennsylvania in the United States. (Not a native American, to be sure.)

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I would put my tongue slightly forward for a 'v' sound. There's also a lot of lot voice-box vibration in addition to the blowing. –  Marcin Jul 4 '11 at 21:02
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@Marcin: That's what I meant by "voicing". And yes, I agree that the tongue is slightly further forward and relaxed for the "V". –  Daniel Jul 4 '11 at 21:04
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Explaining pronunciation without the use of phonetic terms is like baking a cake without a recipe for the first time. –  Harold Cavendish Jul 4 '11 at 21:27
    
@Harrold: As an amateur phonetics enthusiast, I've been through all the ins and outs of language phonetics, much like Professor Higgins - on a smaller scale, you understand. –  Daniel Jul 4 '11 at 21:31
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Take a look at these interactive phonetic animations. Sadly, I am not aware of any similar that feature British English, but if you choose American English, you will gain access to an excellent resource of phonetic animations with sound and frontal videos of people during pronunciation, sorted according to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). V is the voiced labiodental fricative (consonants –> place –> labiodental –> /v/) and W is the voiced labiovelar approximant (consonants –> place –> bilabial –> /w/). You could also choose to see the process explained chronologically. I do not think that there is a better explanation, really.

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+1 for the awesome link. Sad there is no British English but it's very similar to American anyway. –  z7sg Ѫ Jul 4 '11 at 22:09
    
For 'w', do you mean labiovelar or bilabial? I've always thought it the latter, but wikipedia seems to say labiovelar. Now the question is why those two are so easy to interconvert/mistake? –  Mitch Jul 4 '11 at 22:19
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For British English, this video produced by the BBC, explains the difference: bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/pron/sounds/… –  Otavio Macedo Jul 4 '11 at 23:24
    
@Mitch A bilabial consonant is formed by at least a partial closure of the lips and the term labiovelar in this case means a labialised velar. In English, /w/ is a complex consonant with secondary articulation. Notice how its pronunciation starts with the proximal part of the tongue almost touching the soft palate and then moves down and slightly forward, followed by labial movement. The absolutely correct term for /w/ would be the voiced labialized velar approximant. –  Harold Cavendish Jul 4 '11 at 23:29
    
@Otavio Macedo -you should post that as an answer as it's by far the clearest example. –  osknows Jul 5 '11 at 0:43
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Turning my comment into an answer:

For British English, this video produced by the BBC, explains the difference: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/pron/sounds/con_other_7.shtml

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