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It appears that the word which originally had an L in its spelling as well as pronunciation. But its modern pronunciation doesn't have an L.

Wikitionary has:

From Middle English which, hwic, wilche, hwilch, whilk, hwilc, from Old English hwelċ (“which”)

  • One of its Middle English form hwilc's pronunciation is /xwilt͡ʃ/ ([ʍiɫt͡ʃ]).

  • Its Old English hwelc's pronunciation is /xwelt͡ʃ/ ([ʍeɫt͡ʃ])

[Transcriptions from Wikitionary]


Etymology Dictionary also agrees on hwilc but doesn't explain the loss of the L.

This Google book shows some uses of "hwilc" and also records the spelling hwylc

The change from hw to wh is answered in this question (John Lawler's answer seems reasonable), but I didn't find any related question about the loss of the L. I also didn't find any other source for it.

Why did it lose the L? Is there a good reason for it or is it a random loss?

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Much of English is Germanic in origin. German retains the "l" in "welche" (which).

I suspect that there is a tendency in English to lose sounds that aren't needed - especially in common words. You can put this down to laziness. Of course there are many words that retain their old spelling but are pronounced differently today. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/words-that-are-not-pronounced-how-they-are-spelled/

Note that, during the 20th century, the word "which" lost its "hw" sound in many places. Now in England I hear only the pronunciation "wich" although in parts of Scotland the "hw" is preserved. Maybe one day "wich" will become the normal spelling.

We can see this in "could" where the "l" is silent. There is no clear reason for "which" to lose the "l" and for "could" to retain it, albeit silently. English spelling is something of a lottery.

People have been trying to regularise English spelling for over a hundred years. I suspect this will happen naturally owing to the proliferation of phonetic spellings on social media.

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  • "I suspect that there is a tendency in English to lose sounds that aren't needed - especially in common words." /// Sure, but hwilc is a special case. Why special? Because of the L. When L is followed by another consonant, it usually gets velarised (dark l) and then vocalised as in talk, walk, palm, half, calm etc. I suspect the same thing happened in hwilc; the l got velarised before [t͡ʃ] and then vocalised. But I don't have any source to support my answer with. Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 13:35
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    Interesting point about the L in could. I just learned a new word from etymonline when I checked it out: The unetymological -l- was added 15c.-16c. on model of would, should, where it is historical. Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 13:37
  • @FumbleFingers: Or alternatively, by analogy with would, should. Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 13:39
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    @FumbleFingers: And all this time I'd thought could was how you Brits spell cold: analogous to mould, etc. ^_^
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 16:32
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    @FF Does this pave the way for an unetymological fallacy? Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 17:55

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