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In RP English, the 'w' in "sword" is silent. Wiktionary suggests /sɔːd/ and /soʊrd/.

Why? Are there other words like this? The 'w' is pronounced in words like "swollen", "swoop", "sworn" and "swore".

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The W was pronounced in Old English, the pronunciation changed over time, but not the spelling. –  GEdgar Jul 5 '11 at 16:32
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I'm wondering why this happened with "sword" but not with "sworn", and whether "sword" is the only word in which the 'w' drifted away. –  Tim N Jul 5 '11 at 16:39
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@Tim: 'answer'? 'coxswain'? 'who'? –  Mitch Jul 5 '11 at 17:05
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Churchill supposedly said the Royal Navy's traditions consisted of "rum, sodomy, and the lash". The word "coxswain" (pronounced coxun) -- like "boatswain" (often spelled "bo's'un" and always pronounced bosun), "forecastle" ("fo'c'stle", foxul), and "gunwhale" (gunnel) -- is a victim of a fourth proud tradition: reducing the King's English down to a mumble. –  Malvolio Jul 5 '11 at 17:12
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Not only "sword" and "answer" but also "two"... –  user20543 Apr 26 '12 at 9:37

4 Answers 4

I have actually heard someone pronounce the /w/, and not facetiously. It must be rather rare, though, and I might say it's a hypercorrection. In any case, my guess is that [wɔ] and [wo] have a tendency to become [ɔː] and [oʊ] in the neighbourhood of consonants such as [s] that don't change much in the presence of labialisation. The matter is complicated a bit by the spread of non-rhotic accents.

The original word was /sweord/, which according to the usual Old English reconstructed pronunciation would be [sweort] or [sweʊrt]. I imagine [eʊ] dropped to [əʊ] or [əu], which is an allophone of [o]. By this time the [w] had become vestigial and was ultimately dropped, but English spelling is far more conservative than its pronunciation, so the /w/ was retained.

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Can you come up with any examples to support the theory of [swɔ] and [swo] drifting to [sɔː] and [soʊ]? –  Tim N Jul 5 '11 at 17:18
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@Tim: I was going through the eo diphthong, which made a wide variety of transitions: eoweryour, (a)beornanburn, seofonseven, seoþanseethe, and seocsick. –  Jon Purdy Jul 5 '11 at 17:33

Appropriately it's silent in answer. I couldn't find any other root -sw- words with a silent w.

As for sword, I found this from H.L. Mencken's The American Language from 1921:

As for the consonants, the colonists seem to have resisted valiantly that tendency to slide over them which arose in England after the Restoration. Franklin, in 1768, still retained the sound of l in such words as would and should, a usage not met with in England after the year 1700. In the same way, according to Menner, the w in sword was sounded in America “for some time after Englishmen had abandoned it.”

(There's a whole host of silent w s at the start of words but not after s, but they can be considered another "family": wring wrap wrong wrist write wraith wreath wraparound wreck wrath wreak wreck wrench wreckage wrecker wrestle wren wriggle wretched wrest wrinkle wristlet wristwatch writ write writhe wrought wry.)

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I'd say that the "wh*" belong to another family. Didn't think of "answer". Yes, the line is fuzzy and subjective. –  Tim N Jul 5 '11 at 17:08
    
I'm with @Tim: those are "silent" for a different reason. –  Jon Purdy Jul 5 '11 at 17:11
    
Yeah, there's a whole host of those (wring wrap wrong wrist write wraith wreath wraparound wreck wrath wreak wreck wrench wreckage wrecker wrestle wren wriggle wretched wrest wrinkle wristlet wristwatch writ write writhe wrought wry). I'll edit my answer with some more info. –  Hugo Jul 5 '11 at 17:31
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Those /wr/ ones aren't really silent as such—it's just that labialised and non-labialised /r/ have merged in most dialects. In AmE and BrE, they're normally both labialised (so ‘ring’ sort of really starts with an unwritten w); in IrE, they tend to be unrounded (so the written w is ‘silent’); and in ScE and some other dialects, they're still distinct, so /r/ is [r] and /wr/ is [wr]. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 29 at 20:31

<w> is there because it was pronounced after the advent of printing press. So, the spelling stayed, but pronunciation changed. In three cases, andsƿarian > answer, sƿeord > sword, tƿa > two, <w> is there, but not pronounced.

On the other hand, <w> (or its OE <ƿ>) is not there in some words because they were not pronounced by the time printing took over: OE sƿilch > such, sƿa > so

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Is 'ƿ' some code that I don't know for 'w'? IPA? Cherokee? Futhark? –  Mitch Jan 2 '13 at 21:09
    
Well, they call it wynn: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wynn and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_English_Latin_alphabet –  RainDoctor Jan 2 '13 at 21:18

Just a theory: As sword is a thing of knights and noblemen. The silent w may be due to Norman-French pronunciation habits and this pronunciation was generally accepted.

The w in spelling shows the origin of the word and its connection with German Schwert. With the w-spelling it is clear at once that the word does not belong to the word family "sort".

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protected by RegDwigнt Apr 29 at 20:18

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