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In which English accents do they put an h before every word that starts with wh?

Example from Youtube. Notice his pronunciation of whisky.

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In my accent, this only applies to words that begin with wh, not all words that begin with w. For example, I pronounce Wales differently from whales. Is that what you meant to ask? –  user16269 Sep 29 '12 at 4:58
    
Yes, wh, sorry. –  citizen Sep 29 '12 at 5:02
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See: wine-whine merger en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  GEdgar Sep 29 '12 at 13:44
    
That would be South Park or Family Guy. –  Noah Sep 29 '12 at 15:05
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Have you seen this question and this one? They actually have maps. –  RegDwigнt Sep 29 '12 at 17:01
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1 Answer

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Hwoa! Hwat’s with the hwistling hwisky?

> In which English accents do they put an h before every word that starts with wh?

That isn’t what’s going on — you only think you hear an h, because your phoneme set doesn’t include this sound, but its use is pretty common in various accents. Which accents? Lots. Scottish. Irish. Several counties in the north of England. Many parts of North America, especially but not only the south of the United States. Others.

On the Sound Comparisons site out of the UK, you can see how some of the various anglophonic regions pronounce what and white. The pronunciations with IPA /ʍ/ there are what you are mis-hearing as an h. It’s actually more of an unvoiced w, if you would, or more technically, a voiceless labiovelar approximant.

I’ll give you just one guess where the whisky reviewer is from — hint, it isn’t spelled whiskey there. Also listen to his r’s.


Phonological History of wh

Wikipedia has a whole article on the phonological history of wh. It currently begins this way:

The pronunciation of the digraph ⟨wh⟩ in English has varied with time, and can still vary today between different regions. According to the historical period and the accent of the speaker, it is most commonly realised as the consonant cluster /hw/ or as /w/. Before rounded vowels, as in who and whole, it is often realized as /h/.

The historical pronunciation of this digraph is in most cases /hw/, but in many dialects of English it has merged with /w/, a process known as the “wine–whine merger”. In dialects which maintain the distinction, it is generally transcribed [ʍ], and is equivalent to a voiceless [w̥] or [hw̥].

Regarding which accents have the merger versus which ones preserve the distinction, they write:

The merger is essentially complete in England, Wales, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and is widespread in the United States and Canada. In accents with the merger, pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, weather/whether, wail/whale, Wales/whales, wear/where, witch/which etc. are homophonous. The merger is not found in Scotland, Ireland (except in the popular speech of Dublin, although the merger is now spreading more widely), and parts of the U.S. and Canada.

The bold emphasis at the end is my own. In North America this sound (that is, the /hw/ or [ʍ]) is common, although not dominant. You will often hear it in broadcasters, who may have been taught to make the distinction when enunciating carefully on the air, even if it had not been in their own original accent.

Your speaker is of course Scottish, as is immediately apparent the first few words out of his mouth, long before he comes to whisky. Scotland is known not to have the merger, but this is also true of many but not most other native speakers.


Orthographical History of wh

As Rob mentions in his comment below, hw was the spelling of this sound in Old English, such as in the opening line to Beowulf:

Hwæt! We Gardena    in geardagum
þeodcyninga    þrym gefrunon;
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

Where Hwæt! represented modern What!, but meant something more like Heark! or Listen up! in this context. (See “Hwæt! LOL! Common formulaic functions in Beowulf and blogs”, Garley et al. 2012, in the Proceedings of the 45th Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society.)

This sound descended from Teutonic χw, and before then from PIE kw and qw, when it also gave rise to the many qu- question-words in Latin and in modern Romance languages. This was sometimes historically spelled qu in Middle English, such as quen and quere for when and where. In Scotland, where the wine–whine merger is next to non-existent, all the way up through the 18th century this sound was regularly spelled with a q not with a w.

The OED consistently uses /hw/ for this phoneme. It has a detailed entry on wh, much too long to quote in its entirety. Here is just the start:

wh, a consonantal digraph, normally represents initial hw in words of OE. origin, as in hwæt what, hwisprian to whisper. In words of other origin, its occurrence may be due to analogy resting on the supposed phonetic appropriateness of the ‘aspirate’ sound, as in whip, whisk; it sometimes varies with h or simple w; e.g. whortleberry and hurtleberry, whoop and hoop, whelked and welked. Historically OE. initial hw represents OTeut. χw (under which Indo-Eur. qw and kw were levelled), which appears as hw in the early forms of the Germanic languages, but is variously modified in their modern forms, appearing in High and Low German as w, in the Scandinavian languages, according to dialect, as hv, kv, and v, in English as wh. For typical forms see what.

And later:

Strong enunciation of the back (guttural) element in the pronunciation of /hw/ is shown by the spellings chua, chuæt, chwæm, chuelc = hwá, etc. of the Lindisfarne Gosp., and began to be denoted in ME. of the 13th century by the use of qu (quu, qw), first in East Anglian texts (once in the Bestiary, qual whale; regularly but not exclusively in Genesis and Exodus). It remained a feature of East Anglian spelling till C. 1450 (as in the Paston Letters and the works of John Metham), but after 1300 it became more especially a characteristic feature of northern English, surviving in Scottish, esp. in the form quh, till the 18th century. (For the converse use of wh for qu /kw/, see the letter Q.)

And still later:

Pronunciation. In OE. the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath. This was developed in two different directions:

  1. it was reduced to a simple voiced consonant /w/;
  2. by the influence of the accompanying breath, the voiced /w/ became unvoiced.

The first of these pronunciations /w/ probably became current first in southern ME. under the influence of French speakers, whence it spread northwards (but ME. orthography gives no reliable evidence on this point). It is now universal in English dialect speech except in the four northernmost counties and north Yorkshire, and is the prevailing pronunciation among educated speakers. The second pronunciation, denoted in this Dictionary by the conventional symbol /hw/, and otherwise variously denoted by phoneticians, (wh), (w), (), (ʍ), is general in Scotland, Ireland, and America, and is used by a large proportion of educated speakers in England, either from social or educational tradition, or from a preference for what is considered a careful or correct pronunciation.

Even in speakers who dp have the wine–whine merger, it does not always become /w/. In front of rounded vowels, it more typically becomes /h/, as in who, whole, and whore. In the onomatopoeic whoop,¹ such as in whooping crane and whooping cough, this is predictively realized as /h/ in North American speakers who do have the merger. However, I have certainly heard those words pronounced with a leading /w/ in England from speakers with the merger. This surprised me, as I predicted /h/ from them as in North America. Perhaps someone from England or Wales might comment on what they have themselves heard there for this particular word.


  1. Besides the wh- question-words, the other broad class of words that begin with wh- are onomatopoeic ones. Just to name a few (this is not meant to be exhaustive), whoa, wham, whoosh, whoosh, whiff, (th)whack, whoops, whew, whirr, whump, whuffle, whush, whutter, whunk, whomp, whizz, and whoompf all come to mind, plus words like whistle, whirl, wheeze, and whisk are all highly suggestive. To my mind, these are all best pronounced with the unmerged sound, because they become more like the thing whose sound they are meant to remind you of that way.

Quyght Wyrd

If you prowl the OED for its wh- words, you will see that they all have obsolete spellings starting with qu- and usually quh-, which is somewhat exotic looking with the h out past the u there. In fact, this prefix has its own entry:

quh-, an obs., chiefly Scottish, variant of the initial combination wh- (OE. hw-), as in quhan, quhat, quhele, quhete = when, what, wheel, wheat. (Also quhou, quhow, quhu = how.) The use of quh- for original qu- is much rarer, in most cases perhaps accidental. See the introductory note on the letter Q.

Here are a few OED citations for that sort of thing:

  • 1585 Jas. I Ess. Poesie (Arb.) 60 ― Quhether the lyne be lang or short.
  • A. 1300 Cursor M. 157 ― Hit sal be reddynn þanne··How he was born and quen and ware [v.rr. quare, whare].
  • 1567 Sc. Acts Jas. VI (1814) III. 23/2 ― The Superintendent, and Ministeris of that Prouince quhair the benefice lyis.
  • A. 1300 Cursor M. 5446 ― Nou rek i neuer quen i dei.
  • 1581 Satir. Poems Reform. xliii. 154 ― Sone efter that the Counsell cround ȝoursell, Quhan godly Murray as a regent rang.
  • 1423 Jas. I Kingis Q. ii, ― I··toke a boke to rede apon a quhile.
  • C. 1375 Cursor M. 13130 (Fairf.) ― Seynt Iohn þis quile in prisoun lay.
  • 1503 Dunbar Thistle & Rose vi, ― Thow did promyt, in Mayis lusty quhyle, For to discryve the Ross.
  • 1585 Jas. I Ess. Poesie (Arb.) 56 ― O Mercure,··efter Pan had found the quhissill, syne Thou did perfyte, that quhilk he bot espyit.
  • 1629 Orkney Witch Trial in County Folk Lore ɪɪɪ. (1903) 103 ― Quha being quholl then deit within thrie dayes be your witchcraft.
  • A. 1300 Cursor M. 21267, ― I sal tell··Quat mai be yock, and quat quele [Fairf. quile, Trin. wheel] mai be, Bridel quat es, and quat axeltre.
  • 1651 J. Nicoll Diary (Bann. Club) 61 ― Sum pure pepill quha wer spyning that day loist thair quheillis and wer brokin.

Odd, eh? I dimly recall reading some folks wondering whether the qu- and quh- spelling in Scots represented a stronger sound than is heard today, and how that might account for how resistent the Scots are to the merger. But I have nothing to substantiate that proposition; my own belief is that it was just an orthographic convention, and shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning a real stop like /kw/.

Under its entry for the letter Q, the OED has this note:

In certain dialects of ME., however, the combination qu- (quu-, qv-, qw-) was not confined to words in which it represented OE. cw- or Romanic qu-, but also took the place of ordinary ME. wh- (OE. hw-), as in quan, quat, qvele, qwelpe = when, what, wheel, whelp. The earliest occurrence of these spellings is in Gen. & Exod., where they are exclusively employed; in later use they are characteristically northern, and are found as late as 1570, Levins having quilome, quip = whilome, whip. In the 14-15th c. the combinations qh- and qhw- are similarly employed in MSS. written in the NE. midlands. Scottish scribes preferred quh- (qvh-, qwh-), which is also, though more rarely, used in northern English MSS.; this orthography survived till the 17th c., and is defended by A. Hume (Orthogr. Brit. Tongue 18) as a more correct method of representing the sound than wh-. On the other hand wh- was freq. written by northern scribes in the 14-15th c. in place of qu-, as whik, wheme, white = quick, queme, quite; and alliteration of original qu- with wh- is not infrequent in some poems, as the Wars of Alexander, Destr. Troy, and Morte Arthure. The pron. implied by this is still current in the northern and north-midland counties (not in Scotland): see esp. the words quaint, queme, quey, quick.

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"That isn’t what’s going on, but it is pretty standard." Huh? What is (not) going on, and what is pretty standard? Sorry, to me it's OTT. –  Kris Sep 29 '12 at 5:27
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As tchrist says, it is historically, and in some accents still, /ʍ/ a single sound which is a voiceless version of /w/. Since this sound is absent from most English speakers' repertoire, they may well hear it as the sequence /hw/. That, I think, is what he means by "That isn't what's going on". Some speakers, particularly if their native dialect does not have this sound, may come to pronounce it /hw/. –  Colin Fine Sep 29 '12 at 12:17
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+1, and I would just ask the OP to note that in OE the combination was reversed: hw instead of wh, sometimes leaving off the w entirely, which provides a clue as to where the aspiration comes from. –  Robusto Sep 29 '12 at 15:04
    
@Robusto I was just thinking of putting that in, from the hwæt of Beowulf to the historic qu- transcriptions of wh- words in Scots, parallelling the Latinate qu- question words and PIE /kw/. –  tchrist Sep 29 '12 at 15:06
    
Re: "In the onomatopoeic whoop,¹ such as in whooping crane and whooping cough, this is predictively realized as /h/ in North American speakers who do have the merger": How strange. I'm North American, and do have the merger, and yet I've only ever heard these with /w/, never /h/. I guess there are more things in Heaven and Earth . . . –  ruakh Sep 29 '12 at 23:41
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