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.]

  • 11
    Please no "obligatory links" to cool whip. (^_^)
    – RegDwigнt
    May 17, 2011 at 18:51
  • Sarah Silverman (3:30): "My mother speaks very well and says, like, /ʍɛn/ and /ʍɛər/." (Manchester, New Hampshire)
    – Talia Ford
    Oct 29, 2013 at 2:11
  • 1
    Uticensis, that's strange. I've heard that pronunciation from Americans with southern US accents.
    – Tristan r
    Mar 15, 2014 at 13:26

6 Answers 6


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.


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.


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/.

  • 3
    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/. Mar 15, 2014 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, 2014 at 14:49
  • as for Britain, the wikipedia suggests that any w/wh distinction is an affectation as well
    – hunter
    Mar 15, 2014 at 14:49
  • 3
    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. Mar 15, 2014 at 14:52
  • 1
    What is the phonetic difference between [hw] and [ʍ] anyway? From what I remember, /h/ in English is usually realized phonetically as a voiceless version of the following sound. So [hw] = [ẘw] (voiceless approximant), which seems awfully close to [ʍ] (voiceless fricative). Additionally, Wikipedia suggests that English /hj/ is often realized as [ç], which seems perfectly analogous to /hw/ = [ʍ]. I'm not convinced that the distinction between /ʍ/ and /hw/ is anything but notational.
    – herisson
    Jul 18, 2015 at 19:50

If you listen to old CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) programs, you will hear the hw sound, but it has almost completely died nowadays, except among older people.


My English teacher always pronounces such words as which, why, where differently from witch, y, wear. She explains that because people are lazy, they tend to ignore such nuances.

  • 1
    Where and when did this occur?
    – tchrist
    Apr 15, 2023 at 17:03
  • We live in Florida; she and I talked to each other within the last two months.
    – John
    May 6, 2023 at 11:36

I lived in California while growing up and everyone always pronounced the /wh/ sound. It wasn’t until decades later, when I was living in Pennsylvania, that I first heard people say whale as /wale/, which as /witch/, etc.

  • Once you reach 50 reputation, you'll be able to share such anecdotes in comments- but 'answers' are expected to be answers. You could edit your answer to address the question itself, and consider taking the tour. Oct 13, 2023 at 16:20

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