Many people drop the "w" from words like "dwarf," changing the pronunciation from /dwɔrf/ to /dɔrf/. This has led to the re-spelling "dorf" being used in some informal contexts, e.g. "Dorf Fort."

My question is not just about this one word, though. This change seems to be part of a broader sound change that is currently in progress where "w" is sometimes dropped when preceded by a consonant and followed by the sound /ɔr/. Another example is "quarter" /kwɔrtər/ being pronounced as /kɔrtər/. (See these threads from the American Dialect Society mailing list: /kw/~/k/, quarter, and this one from alt.usage.english: Quarter). I know there are several older sound changes that caused /w/ to drop in similar positions in the past, such as in "two" and "sword," but I'm asking specifically about the most recent sound change, which affects words that have pronunciations with /w/ listed in modern dictionaries.

I have this sound change, but only optionally and only in some words. I can pronounce "dwarf" as /dwɔrf/ or /dɔrf/, and "quarter" as /kwɔrtər/ or /kɔrtər/, but I can only pronounce "thwart" as /θwɔrt/, not as /θɔrt/. I'm trying to figure out why this difference exists.

This sound change seems to be recent and currently in progress, so I also wanted to learn where it exists. Some sources seem to indicate that it mainly occurs in North American accents. For example, the Oxford English dictionary entry for "dwarf" gives the British pronunciation as /dwɔːf/, and the U.S. pronunciation as /d(w)ɔrf/. However, the author of the alt.usage.english post I referenced above describes hearing the pronunciation "KOR-ter" for "quarter" from a BBC reporter, who I would assume was British. So I'm really not sure! Does anyone know more about this sound change, where it is most common, and what words it tends to affect?

I think it's more common with words like "quarter" than with words like "dwarf," so it seems I chose a bad example with my original title. However, for the disbelievers, I have looked up Youtube videos that contain this pronunciation of "dwarf":

Not a lot, I know. So if you think this pronunciation doesn't exist, just focus on "quarter" and other words with /kw/.

  • 1
    The first dozen pertinent sites in a Google search for "dwarf" contains nothing but "w"-inclusive pronunciations, both written and spoken. On the Forvo site, which gives multiple examples of people actually saying the word in their version of English, only one person sounds somewhat like there's no "w" sound, but upon closer inspection, it's just that the vowel sound she uses is not that far from the sound of the w, kind of like "dwoof". So I think your question is based on a false assumption, that people actually leave out the "w" sound, like they do in "sword." – Steven Littman Mar 20 '16 at 3:41
  • 1
    @StevenLittman: The information about Forvo is useful. But if no one uses the pronunciation without /w/, why does the Oxford English Dictionary list it? – sumelic Mar 20 '16 at 4:03
  • 2
    @sumelic~ is your OED a paper version? In my online version, the audio file has a clearly audible "w" for both BrE an AE variations. – Roaring Fish Mar 20 '16 at 5:54
  • 1
    @RoaringFish: Not the audio file, the written transcription /d(w)ɔrf/ has parentheses around the "w," indicating that it is optional. – sumelic Mar 20 '16 at 16:04
  • 3
    @RoaringFish: "Symbols in parentheses are used to denote elements that may be omitted either by individual speakers or in particular phonetic contexts: e.g. bottle / ˈbɒt(ə)l/, Mercian /ˈmзːʃ(ɪ)ən/, suit /s(j)uːt/, impromptu /ɪmˈprɒm(p)tjuː/, father /ˈfɑːðə(r)/" (key to pronunciation). I pronounce "suit" as /suːt/; I don't say /sjuːt/ with an indistinguishable glide. The glide is just not present for me. Parentheses generally indicate omission is possible, although not always for all speakers. – sumelic Mar 20 '16 at 17:26

I don't think I've ever heard the "w" completely elided in "dwarf", but perhaps there might be some transitional process happening, as I do sometimes hear it pronounced "do-orf" (i.e. two syllables), especially by those who have a slower pace of speech. A bit like pronouncing "film" as "fil-um".

"Quarter" is different: I pronounce it with the "w" when I'm articulating my words, and unconsciously drop the "w" when I'm talking more lazily or colloquially - though after reading your question, I'm now much more conscious of doing so!

"Quart" isn't heard much now that we're metric in Australia but I think it gets the same treatment as "quarter". I'm not aware of any other word where the "w" sound is disappearing.

  • So you're from Australia? I guess it isn't restricted to American English then. Interestingly, I just found a source that says the /w/ sound can also be dropped from "quarter" and "quart" in New Zealand English: books.google.com/… – sumelic Mar 27 '16 at 8:38
  • I've also heard "quartz" without the /w/, so perhaps what this reflects is the similarity between the /w/ sound and the following /or/ sound, leading to the /w/ being elided in lazy pronunciation of these specific "quar" words. – Chappo Mar 27 '16 at 9:07
  • 1
    Yes, that seems likely. But for some reason, I can't drop the /w/ in "quarry" and "quarantine," even though they have the vowel /or/ for me. – sumelic Mar 27 '16 at 9:10

I couldn't find any information on dropping the "w" in "dwarf" (maybe it's not common in this word after all!) but I did find out after asking this question that the 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, which involved speakers across the United States, had a question about the pronunciation of "quarter". The breakdown across the U.S. was

a. with [kw] (62.07%)
b. with [k] ("cor-ter") (30.09%)
c. I use both interchangeably (7.41%)
d. other (0.43%)
(10890 respondents)

I didn't see any geographical trends in the distribution of the different pronunciations.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.