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My eldest is a beginning reader. Yesterday we read one of my favorite books, The Wreck of the Zephyr. He pointed at wreck and asked me why that one looked like it said "wuh-reck." I explained that spelling is funny like that sometimes.

This didn't satisfy my curiosity though. Silent w is not uncommon—we see it in the question word 'who' for instance—but it often appears in the combination wr-, and this is what I am curious about.

Was the w ever pronounced in these words (and if so, how)? Do these kind of words all share a common lineage that has some unique sound represented by this combination? (I am thinking of, for instance, that someone told me once that most words with ph come from Greek.)

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Etymonline indicates a descent through Old English from Germanic/Norse heritage. I suspect it was pronounced (although not as a distinctly separate syllable wuh-reck, more ooreck) but I wasn't around a thousand years ago to say for certain. –  Andrew Leach Dec 19 '12 at 12:18
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The W is not silent... why would it be silent? W doesn't make the "wuh" sound. –  jdstankosky Dec 19 '12 at 15:34
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@jdstankosky What? How do you pronounce that word/letter then? –  KitFox Dec 19 '12 at 15:48
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Just like T in trap, nobody should be pronouncing it "Tuh-Rap". The T leads into the R. I pronounce the W the same way. It's subtle, not silent. This is along the same lines as "are" ('ahr') vs "our" ('owr'). They should not be pronounced the same, yet people do it anyways (heck, this I was how I was taught in grade school). –  jdstankosky Dec 19 '12 at 15:58
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@jdstankosky 1. "are" and "our" are pronounced differently in certain dialects of English, and the same in others. It's incorrect to say universally that they "should not" be pronounced the same. 2. In most modern English dialects, the w is indeed silent in wr-. In yours I suppose it may not be. –  Mark Beadles Dec 19 '12 at 16:32
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up vote 17 down vote accepted

Not My Field, so subject to correction:

In Old English the “voiced labiovelar approximant” /w/ was in fact pronounced in the initial clusters /wr/ and /wl/. Lass, Cambridge History of the English Language describes the loss of this pronunciation in the context of “Onset-cluster reduction” (III, page 122):

Witch/which, not/knot, Nash/gnash, rite/write are homophones in most varieties of English (see below on the first pair); conservative spelling preserves an earlier state. During our period [1476-1776] English underwent the most extensive simplification of onset clusters in any Germanic language. Old /wr,wl/ and /xn,xr,xl/ were lost in many other dialects, but /kn/ was generally retained (E *knee /ni:/ v. German, Swedish, Dutch /kni:/).
 By late Middle English /wl/ had reduced to /l/ (wlispian > lisp), and /xr,xl,xn/ to /r,l,n/ (hracu > rake, hlūd > loud, hnacod > naked). The only (from a modern perspective) ‘exotic’ clusters remaining were /xw/ (hwilc ‘which’), /wr/ (wrītan ‘write’), and /kn,gn/ (cnāwan ‘know’, gnagan ‘gnaw’). All except /xw/ (> /hw/:3.5.1) simplified in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; /hw/ remained for some southern speakers until well into this century, and is still stable in Scotland, Ireland and parts of North America.
 The first post-Middle English simplification is of /wr/: while most sixteenth-century sources are uninformative, Coote (1596) gives wrest/rest, wrung/rung as homophones. There is sporadic retention in Hodges (1644), and Jones (1701) seems to be the last mention of possible /wr/. In general, /wr/ > /r/ during the seventeenth century.

German developed similarly, but not contemporaneously. Joseph Wright, Historical German Grammar (1907), I,119:

§229.  Germanic w = Engl. w in wet (generally written uu, uv, vu, vv in OHG. manuscripts) remained initially before vowels in OHG. and MHG. as OHG wahsan, to grow, wëg, way, wësan, to be. It became the labio-dental spirant v (written w) = Engl. v in vat, in late MHG., and this has remained in NHG. [...] Initial w had disappeared before l,r in prehistoric OHG., as OHG. ant•luzzi, Goth. wlitz, face, countenance; OHG rëhhan, Goth. wrikan, to persecute.

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Include some wh- words as well: whore (OE hore), whole ( OE hal). Similar looking ME wholy, ME whood, ME whord disappeared; and holy, hood and hoard were reintroduced. –  RainDoctor Jan 4 '13 at 20:04
    
@RainDoctor As you imply, the /w/ was never present in these in OE; and for none was /wh/ the ordinary ME spelling. These spellings started appearing sporadically in the 14th century, but most are EME. At any rate, there's no question of their representing lost initial /w/. –  StoneyB Jan 4 '13 at 21:53
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StoneyB, Lass, and Wright have outlined the recent history of initial WR simplification. The ancient history of how they got that way is interesting, too.

I checked the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots and found, to my surprise, that all the words beginning with wr- in the American Heritage Dictionary (with etymologies traced to Proto-Indo-European, which includes all the words under discussion here) come from just two PIE roots:

  1. *wer³- Conventional base of various Indo-European roots; 'to turn, bend'. Derivatives include stalwart, weird, vertebra, wrath, wrong, wrestle, briar, rhapsody, and worm.

  2. *werg- 'to do'. Derivatives include work, urge, energy, allergy, wrought, irk, wright, bulwark, and boulevard.

Note that both of these roots have a vowel between the W and the R. That's not always true in the words they form, however. That's because of the Schwundstufe.

Indo-European, as far as we've been able to figure out, used vowel switching patterns regularly (the phenomenon is called Ablaut, a German term), so that for a given root, it is common to find both "E-Grade" and "O-Grade" words in daughter languages, like Latin pedis vs Greek podos, both meaning 'foot'.

There's a third Grade, however, called "Zero-Grade"; that's where the vowel is neither E nor O but rather absent. I prefer the original German for that: Schwundstufe 'disappearing stuff'; sounds both mystical and official.

And that's what wright and wrought and wrath and wrestle and so on come from. They're Schwundstufen. They come from processes or previous alternants of words with that root where the vowel became superfluous and was dispensed with. These always conform to the pronunciation norms (the phonology) of the people speaking them at the time; when these norms change, as Lass explains in StoneyB's answer, things happen.

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Wow! tchrist was saying in chat how all those words seemed to have something twisted about them. Now I know why. –  KitFox Dec 19 '12 at 16:47
    
This stuff hangs around for a long time. Look at ST- initial words, for instance. –  John Lawler Dec 19 '12 at 16:54
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I wish I'd thought to go to that source, which I actually have. I'm afraid Schwundstufe is more pedestrian, merely "disappearing grade": Stufe = step on a stair = L. gradus. But it does have a very solemn Schwung to it. –  StoneyB Dec 19 '12 at 17:34
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These are generally words of Germanic extraction, where the German w is pronounced like our English v.

The German equivalent of English wreck is Wrack, pronounced roughly “vrahk”. German also has wringen, pronounced “vringen”, which is equivalent to English wring.

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OK, but why did the W become silent in English? And it doesn't even have to be at the beginning. Sword is another example, vs German Schwert. –  Mr Lister Dec 19 '12 at 13:31
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@Mr. Lister It's the other way round: /w/ became /v/ in MHG. –  StoneyB Dec 19 '12 at 14:05
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@MrLister You might be interested in this question. –  KitFox Dec 19 '12 at 14:39
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As Stoney said, this explanation has it backwards. The original pronunciation is [wr], the [w] > [v] in German is an innovation as much as the [w] > 0 in English. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 19 '12 at 17:09
    
Interesting; I've learned something here. My Duden says that "Wrack" and "wringen" come from Dutch, so perhaps speakers of OHG didn't have to wrestle (another one!) with pronouncing those words with the old-style "w." –  gmcgath Dec 20 '12 at 13:07
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What most people find problematic about the wr- blend (and what they are usually most curious about) is how it could have ever possibly been pronounced to begin with, since w to r requires a complete repositioning of the tongue and lips, which would naturally insert an intrusive vowel between them to sound like "werist", for example. Although we can't know for certain, as the w died out early in Modern English, it was mostly likely not pronounced as a blend at all, but instead, the w colored the r so that the tongue would be positioned for the r, but the lips would be rounded to form w, resulting in a phoneme that no longer exists in Modern English.

Some linguists speculate that the wr- blend is a remnant of a time when r was a flip instead of a liquid, and in that case the w would be pronounced independently. This may have been true early on, but the r was probably a liquid by Late Middle English and the w was still pronounced, so that the repositioning of the mouth as described above would have been still been likely.

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