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I was reading Chaucer and I am unsure on the pronunciation of "ch" and "wh". It's written in the guide that all "ch" is read as in "church" and it makes sense in words like "chivalrye", but sounds awkward in "Christendom" which was probably going a different route when it was being borrowed, since I am not aware of any neighbouring languages that would not give it a "k" or "kh" sound. I wasn't able to find the sound for what was written as "wh" in the text I have. Was it the same as Modern English, or was it closer to a German "w"?

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  • The Ch of Christ was never pronounced like church. Ever.
    – tchrist
    Apr 15, 2018 at 19:15
  • The sound of "wh" has apparently stayed the same from Old English to Modern English (in those dialects that currently distinguish it from "w"), so presumably this is the sound Chaucer used. See Wikipedia. Apr 15, 2018 at 19:54

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All guides to the pronunciation of Chaucer’s Middle English tell you to pronounce Germanic or French words with the ch-digraph as modern church, but they assume you’re clever enough to know that in words of Greek origin like Christ or chronicle, where the digraph is standing in for a χ (chi), that it is pronounced with a k sound.

By Chaucer’s day the wh-digraph in who and whom had already reduced to an h, but in other words, the wine-whine merger was still far in the distance. If Wales and whales are homophones in your flavor of English, then you will have to find someone from parts of Ireland, Scotland, or the Southern United States to teach you the sound.

This consonant is rendered in IPA as /ʍ/, the voiceless labialized velar consonant, but there is nothing velar in the pronunciation of those English speakers who preserve the wine-whine distinction except in moments of extreme agitation when they feel compelled to yell at you. It’s best rendered /hw/, that is, a /w/ with a brief aspiration.

As a freebie, let me tell you how to pronounce the gh-digraph after mid and front vowels /ç/ on the assumption you’ve heard the name Bach or Scottish Loch pronounced often enough to cover the back vowels. Chaucer pronounced night more or less like the Modern German nicht. And the way you get that sound is: kick, freeze, blow. Say the word kick and don’t move anything. Then blow air through what you’ve got. That’s the sound you want.

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  • Now that is interesting. I was wondering how to stop fellow singers using Ish for Ich. Thanks for the freebie!
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 16, 2018 at 21:19
  • @AndrewLeach: the worst is Beethoven: Alle mention verrrden breeder. I have tricks for that too, but it may be a lost cause.
    – KarlG
    Apr 16, 2018 at 21:59

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