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If we spelled who without the W – making it ho like with do and to — it could still make sense, so why is there a silent W in the word who?

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    Because etymology. It's wer in German, and the W is still pronounced. English is a Germanic language. That said, note how there is no such thing as a "silent letter", or rather, all letters are always silent. In all languages. Spoken language comes first. Only then do you try to come up with a writing system. Which has to encode way more than just spelling. E.g. etymology. As in this case right here. The spelling used to reflect the actual pronunciation, but no longer does. Given enough time, it will get reformed, but by that time the pronunciation will have moved on further still. – RegDwigнt Feb 1 at 23:21
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    To add to the confusion, in BrE the words "what" and "where" etc are sometimes pronounced as if the w and h are reversed: "h-wot". This is no stranger than the AmE pronunciation of "buoy" where the same can happen and they sometimes say "boo-ee" whereas in BrE this rhymes with "boy". – Weather Vane Feb 1 at 23:26
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    @RegDwigнt Hover over "add a comment" and you'll see "Use comments to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Avoid answering questions in comments." Perhaps you'd like to promote your comment to an answer? – CJ Dennis Feb 1 at 23:54
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    Because the W is not actually silent, just very quiet? And "who" is not pronounced at all like "ho" (gettospeak for prostitute). It's pronounced much more like "hoo" - the sound an owl conventionally makes, at least in US English. In any case, English spelling is not phonetic, which allows us to distinguish between homonyms and near-homonyms. – jamesqf Feb 2 at 3:20
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    @RegDwigнt - Or perhaps another way to say it is that nobody ever creates a spelling where they intentionally make a letter "silent". "Silent" letters virtually always were spoken letters in the past, and time has stolen away their voice. – The_Sympathizer Feb 3 at 8:41
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The spelling "who" was originally used simply because, in past time periods, this word was pronounced with a "wh" sound. To be clear, by "a "wh" sound" I mean a sound that is different from either "w" or "h" on its own. Although many varieties of English have lost "wh" as a distinct sound, replacing it with plain [w], the digraph "wh" used to (and in some accents still does) have a value that can be transcribed as /hw/, or written with the special symbol [ʍ] if we interpret it as a single sound.

Many aspects of modern English spelling derive from Middle English pronunciation. Analogy with the spelling of other words probably contributed to the continued use of "wh" in spelling even after people started pronouncing the word with a simple /h/ sound. "Who" is one of the many question words starting with wh- in English.

Here is a brief explanation of why who lost its /w/ sound. The sound [w] is made by rounding the lips. The pronunciation of the word "who" evolved over time to have a rounded vowel sound, and the presence of a rounded vowel sound caused people to stop hearing a separate rounded consonant at the start of the word. This has happened in other words, most obviously two.

The question word how lost its /w/ sound for a similar reason, but much earlier, so it has a spelling without "wh".

Unfortunately, irregular spellings in English aren't always etymological. Because of the confusion between "h" and "wh" before rounded vowels, a few words pronounced with a simple /h/ sound are spelled with "wh" before "o" even though, from an etymological perspective, they would be expected to just have "ho". An example is whole, which is etymologically related to heal.


A few blog posts that relate to topics brought up in the comments:

  • The wh sound may be phonemically transcribed as /hw/, but I would consider it quite misleading to transcribe it thus phonetically – there is no doubt that it is a single sound. [hw] would be an unvoiced [h] followed by a voiced [w], and that is not found anywhere in English; it is, in fact, extremely difficult to produce at all without adding a prop vowel. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 2 at 16:05
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Resonants in English are typically devoiced when they come after a voiceless consonant in an onset. I don’t think anyone analyzes /hj/ as in “huge” as a unitary phoneme, even though one possible realization of this sequence is apparently a voiceless palatal fricative. I guess [hw] might be a bit questionable phonetically but I think it works as a broad transcription – sumelic Feb 2 at 16:51
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    Even if devoicing is allowed for in broad transcription, [hw] and [hj] still both describe two subsequent sounds, which neither is in practice. Phonemically, I have no problem with it – multiple phonemes can and do coalesce into single sounds all the time, after all – but phonetically, it’s as misleading to me as transcribing the standard American /r/ as [wɹ]. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 2 at 16:56
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    Regarding your last paragraph, the OED says that the spelling <wh> in whole does correspond to a /hw/ or /w/ pronunciation, that arose in the 15th century, and that may still be found in some dialects. (It adds that the same is even true of some <ho-> words where the original spelling in <h> and standard pronunciation in /h/ eventually won out; there are apparently dialects where e.g. home and hoard are pronounced with /w/.) – ruakh Feb 2 at 19:45
  • When I pronounce /hw/ in my dialect (where it is optional), it definitely feels like two sounds. There is the initial aspiration (through tightly rounded lips), then the voiceless glide that becomes voiced just before the vowel is set. For /w/ (even when whispered and thus unvoiced), it seems the sounds starts on the glide. – trlkly Feb 4 at 11:09
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One of the oldest surviving works in any form of English is Beowulf. Here is the first page of the manuscript:

Beowulf page 1

The first line is:

Hƿæt Ƿe garde

which in more modern letters is:

Hwæt We garde

since the ancient letter wynn (Ƿ ƿ) is now represented by double-u (W w).

The first word is "hwæt", which is related to the modern "what" and would have been pronounced "hwat" (to rhyme with "at"). In Middle English, we switched the "h" and "w" around in our spelling, although many speakers continued to pronounce the initial /h/ well into the 20th century.

"Who" is one of the "six Ws" question words:

  • who /huː/
  • what /wɒt/
  • where /wɛə(ɹ)/
  • when /wɛn/
  • why /waɪ/
  • how /haʊ/

For each of the above words starting with /w/, there are some people who still pronounce them starting with /ʍ/ (i.e. /hw/) instead, although this is becoming increasingly rare. All of these words at one point were pronounced starting with /ʍ/.

Wiktionary summarises how "who" became /huː/ nicely:

From [...] Old English hwā [...] Spelling change hw > wh in Middle English (without sound change in initial consonant cluster), while sound change /hw/ > /h/ due to wh-cluster reduction after a bizarre instance of three consecutive vowel shifts of /aː/ to /ɔː/ to /oː/ in Middle English and further to /uː/ in Early Modern English (although only the shift from /ɔː/ to /oː/ is unusual). Compare how, which underwent this change earlier (in Old English), and thus is spelt h.

  • What rhymes not with caught and fought but rather with shut and mutt in America, so /wʌt/ or for some speakers /ʍʌt/. It is not have the rounded [ɒ] that UK speakers have in CLOTH. – tchrist Feb 2 at 4:55
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    @tchrist For me, what rhymes with neither caught nor cut, but with cot. I just picked one major pronunciation so as to not clutter the answer. – CJ Dennis Feb 2 at 5:22
  • Does "Hwæt We garde" mean "What we did"? – md2perpe Feb 3 at 19:58
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    @md2perpe The first three words with modern punctuation are "Hwæt! We Gar-Dena" with the "-na" at the start of the second line. It means "Hark! We Spear-Danes ..." The sentence is completed by the first word on the fourth line. If you look carefully, you can see a few full stops in the manuscript. – CJ Dennis Feb 3 at 22:00
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Why is the W silent in the word Who?

It's a long story (as @chaslyfromUK points out, it comes from a PIE root, which means it's been around on people's lips for over 4000 years), but the short of it is that Germanic languages like English changed /kʷ/ in PIE words to /hʷ/ or /xʷ/. English words beginning with WH, which used to be spelled HW, also used to be pronounced with much more friction than today -- like CH, the ach-Laut, the sound in the German word ach. English words like whale and wail did not start with the same consonant sound then -- today, for most Americans and some UK English speakers, they do.

The H part of the English WH words went away in most cases, like where, when, why, whether, which, what, whence, and whither; that was part of the change from Middle to Modern English. The old /x/ sounds that were allophones of /h/ went silent; they were spelled GH and our Middle English spelling system keeps them for luck or something.

In the cases of how and who, however, it was the W part of WH that went away. These two Middle English words contained back rounded vowels /u:/ in how and /o:/ in who, and if you've ever tried to pronounce words like woo or woad carefully you know that it's very hard to make the W part distinctive. This is because the sound /w/ is made simply by rounding the lips tightly, and they are already tightly rounded in making the vowels /u:/ and /o:/.

A consonant that can't be heard is often not written, and after a while nobody bothers.
That's all, really.

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    Same reason why whole and whore have only /h/ left, although whoop, whooping is less settled out, being sometimes /h/ in the crane or cough, but being /hw/ merged to /w/ in the interjection whoops. – tchrist Feb 2 at 1:35
  • @tchrist whole was never pronounced with a /w/. The "w" was added 15c. Similarly with whore, the "w" was added 16c. – CJ Dennis Feb 2 at 5:28
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    @CJDennis I knew there were spellings of whore without w, but I apparently misrecalled the direction. That's almost silly for them to have done that if it wasn't reflected in the pronunciation. – tchrist Feb 2 at 5:38
  • It was downright silly of them. But don't forget that silly didn't always mean the same thing, either. – John Lawler Feb 2 at 17:07
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There is no point in trying to make sense of English spelling. The reasons are often lost in history. English has undergone many transformations. Here is probably the best explanation you will get.

who (pron.) Old English hwa "who," sometimes "what; anyone, someone; each; whosoever," from Proto-Germanic *hwas (source also of Old Saxon hwe, Danish hvo, Swedish vem, Old Frisian hwa, Dutch wie, Old High German hwer, German wer, Gothic hvo (fem.) "who"), from PIE root *kwo-, stem of relative and interrogative pronouns. https://www.etymonline.com/word/who#etymonline_v_7978

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    Making sense of English spelling is fascinating! There is a reason for everything, although sometimes that reason is lost in history, as you say. If you know a word has French or Latinate origins, that goes far to explain its spelling. Likewise with words of Germanic (Anglic, Old Norse) origins or Greek origins. They all help understand our often complex modern spelling system. – CJ Dennis Feb 1 at 23:49
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    Thankfully, not for some words are the reasons lost in history. Millenial old roots still can be traced if they are say from PIE languages. "kaha (कः) means who in masculine form" learnsanskritonline.com/lessons/… – Kris Feb 2 at 9:59
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    By "There is no point" maybe you mean "It is very very hard" ? – DaveInCaz Feb 2 at 12:42

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