From the Dictionar o the Scots Leid:

Quha, Quhay, interrog. and rel. pron. Also: qwha, qha, qua, qwa, wha, vha, hua; qhaa; quhaw; quhai qwhay, whay, quay; quhae, whae; quhe, quhey, qwhey.

[North. ME qua (Cursor M.), wha (Rolle), mid. and south. hwo (c 1200) etc. (see Quho), early ME wha (Orm), hwa (c 1230), wa (12th c.), OE hwá nom. personal interrog. pron. sing. or pl. cf. Quho.] Who.

There are other such spellings: “quhat” for “what”, “quham” for “whom”, “quhamto” for “to whom”. I’ve been trying to find some explanation for that on the web but with little success.

One thing I found is what follows. I do believe I’m not infringing any copyrights by the looks of the text. I don’t know who wrote it and when though. I took it from here. My notes are italicized.

8. To clere this point, and alsoe to reform an errour bred in the south, and now usurped be our ignorant printeres, I wil tel quhat befel my self quhen I was in the south with a special gud frende of myne. Ther rease, upon sum accident, quhither quho, quhen, quhat, etc., sould be symbolized with q or w, a hoat disputation betuene him and me. After manie conflictes (for we ofte encountered), we met be chance, in the citie of Baeth, with a Doctour of divinitie of both our acquentance. He invited us to denner. At table my antagonist, to bring the question on foot amangs his awn condisciples, began that I was becum an heretik, and the doctour spering how, ansuered that I denyed quho to be spelled with a w, but with qu. Be quhat reason? quod the Doctour. Here, I beginning to lay my grundes of labial, dental, and guttural [velar?] soundes and symboles, he snapped me on this hand and he on that, that the doctour had mikle a doe to win me room for a syllogisme. Then (said I) a labial letter can not symboliz a guttural syllab. But w is a labial letter, quho a guttural sound. And therfoer w can not symboliz quho, nor noe syllab of that nature. Here the doctour staying them again (for al barked at ones), the proposition, said he, I understand; the assumption is Scottish, and the conclusion false. Quherat al laughed, as if I had bene dryven from al replye, and I fretted to see a frivolouse jest goe for a solid ansuer. My proposition is grounded on the 7 sectio of this same cap., quhilk [whilk=which] noe man, I trow [believe], can denye that ever suked the paepes [I have no idea quhat “suked the paepes” might mean.] of reason. And soe the question must rest on the assumption quhither w be a labial letter and quho a guttural syllab. As for w, let the exemples of wil, wel, wyne, juge quhilk are sounded befoer the voual with a mint of the lippes, as is said the same cap., sect. 5. [I don't understand this sentence.] As for quho, besydes that it differres from quo onelie be aspiration, and that w, being noe perfect consonant, can not be aspirated, I appele to al judiciouse eares, to quhilk Cicero attributed mikle, quhither the aspiration in quho be not ex imo [what does ex imo mean?] gutture, and therfoer not labial.

That does seem to give some insight so I would like to divide my question in two parts now. The first part will be about the interpretation of the above, and the second part will be about the spellings in general.

Part 1.

I understand that the text is about a discussion between the author on one side and two other people (his friend and the Doctour of divinitie) on the other side. The discussion was about the spelling of the words which have “wh” in them in standard Present-day English. The author said that these words should be spelled with “quh” instead of “wh”. The friend and the Doctour disagreed. The author said that the reason for his conviction that the “quh” spellings are right is that the sound in these word is guttural, which I understand means velar, and not labial.

What was the sound the author used in this word? Was it [ʍ]? He said the sound was velar, and clearly said it wasn’t labial. Could it mean that he produced a sound that wasn’t labialized? I have never heard of such a realization of this phoneme in any historical dialect of English, but I know very little about these things and it's perfectly possible that it existed from my point of view.

The author seems to have been Scottish. First, he advocates the spellings I have only encountered in Scottish texts, and second, according to the Doctour, he made a “Scottish assumption” about the sound. I think it could mean that the Doctour was English (did he live in Bath?) and used the delabialized allophone. I don’t know when the split occurred, or when the text was written, so I can’t judge whether it’s possible.

He says, “As for quho, besydes that it differres from quo onelie be aspiration, and that w, being noe perfect consonant, can not be aspirated, I appele to al judiciouse eares, to quhilk Cicero attributed mikle, quhither the aspiration in quho be not ex imo gutture, and therfoer not labial.”

I understand the “quo” he’s talking about is the Latin word. I think that this might be a clue that the spellings were a Latin influence, which I thought anyway when I first encountered one. But his explanation of the phonetics is puzzling to me. He says that “quho” and “quo” differ only in aspiration. I will not try to give my guesses about that here because it would make this post even longer than it is. I’ll just ask what he could have meant by that. I know of course that he surely knew less about phonetics than we do now and that he didn’t have our standardized terminology, but he must have meant something, mustn't he? And again, how did he pronounce “quho”?

Part 2.

So what were those spellings about? What were their origins? When did they die out? Were they only used in Scotland or in England as well? Why?

Here's another, seemingly related spelling:

WHEEN, n.2 I.Sc. form of Eng. queen (Sh. 1825 Jam.; I.Sc. 1866 Edm. Gl.; Sh. 1916 J. Burgess Rasmie’s Smaa Murr (Maerch 20); I.Sc. 1974). See P.L.D. § 165 and W, letter, 7. (2) (ii). [ʍin]

This confuses me even more. Was it some kind of hypercorrectness introduced by those who, like the Doctour, didn’t like the spellings with the “q”? It seems rather inconsistent though, as it is not “quheen”, but “queen”.

  • @ΜετάEd Indeed it is. Interesting question, interesting example with a very interesting book behind it. Text is here on Gutenberg, more readable than OP's reference. Sep 1, 2012 at 17:42
  • @jwpat7 Thank you, the other answerers have already mentioned that. I did think "suked" was "sucked", but I didn't know the word "pap". English is not my first language, and I will probably never fill all the gaps in vocabulary.
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 20:34
  • ymar, I see that now, so've deleted comment. Note, I think cap. is an abbreviation for capitulum, “(Late Latin) prominent part or division of a writing, chapter, section”. Sep 1, 2012 at 20:38
  • @jwpat7 Thanks for that. Sorry, I can't stand the thought that someone might think I'm making mistakes because I don't know any better, so I have to correct myself: "in my vocabulary".
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 20:41
  • The cap. is indeed for capitulum and refers to a section of the work from which your quotation derives, Alexander Hume's treatise Of the Orthographie and Congruitie of the Britan Tongue, dedicated to James I but not published until 1865. There's a link in my answer to ΜετάEd above. Sep 2, 2012 at 0:00

5 Answers 5


Subject to correction by those more knowledgeable than I about 16th century dialects: the author, who speaks Scots, is justifying the traditional Scots spelling quh for what he sounds with a strong initial 'guttural' - probably velar - fricative, followed by the labial : [xw].

He appeals to the ear: Is not the first sound at bottom [ex imo]a guttural? Since the only difference between Latin quo (pronounced with [kw]) and Scots quho (prounced with [xw]) is that the latter is 'aspirated' (fricative), the spelling with qu is superior to that with wh. This, he says, "No man can deny who has sucked the paps [suckled at the breasts] of reason."

The Doctour, who as an Englishman uses in the same words either a simple labial [w] or possibly a much lighter initial velar [hw], dismisses this as a "Scottish assumption".

  • Was the author's vowel in "who" [ɔ]?
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 13:55
  • @ymar Beyond my scholarship, but whatever his long "o" was (since he uses the same sound in L. quo). I note that "who" becomes "wha" in later dialectal spellings, so it follows a different course than in English. Sep 1, 2012 at 14:17
  • OK, thank you very much. The [xw] explains a lot; I didn't know about this pronunciation. The Scots I've heard used [hw] or [w].
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 14:22
  • @ymar My understanding is that Scots [xw] evolved into [hw] - I imagine under English influence - but I don't know when. Sep 1, 2012 at 15:39
  • 2
    @tchrist Yes, I consulted that. Unhappily, it doesn't tell us quhen these shifts occurred. Sep 1, 2012 at 16:59

One of the peculiarities of a 'Scottish accent' (insofar as such a thing exists, as opposed to Highland, Glasgow, Embro, etc.) is a slight aspiration on w, so that whether sounds as if it were spelt hwether. It looks as if the author here, being Scottish, championed spelling reform on the grounds that written English should reflect spoken, and so this aspiration should be reflected in an initial qu. It never caught on among writers in England, probably because they (we?) do not use the sound in the first place. I have seen quilk for whilk (which) in Renaissance English, but of course there were many Scottish divines writing authoritatively at the time.

Why qu rather than hw or cw? At this distance there's no knowing for sure, but a reasonable guess is possible. It is well-known (picking up your second point) that the Anglo-Saxon for 'woman', for example, was cwen, and that the Normans, finding it impossible either to pronounce or to spell, substituted the nearest sound in the Norman French vocabulary, qu for cw. (The Scots language, pronouncing wheen closer to queen in any case, might not have seen any need to change.) A Scot would obviously not want to bring in additional Saxon (Sassenach) overtones with cw, and might well prefer the Latinate qu to the entirely new hw.

And, by the way, suked the paepes = sucked the paps = imbibed the milk.

  • But how did Scots lose the initial stop in "cwen"? Was it some general trend?
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 13:50
  • The so-called /hw/ (semi-)phoneme is found outside Scotland in speakers without the (very common) weather–whether merger. Wikipedia’s English phonology article notes that “The sequence /hw/, a voiceless labiovelar approximant [hw̥], is sometimes considered an additional phoneme. For most speakers, words that historically used to have these sounds are now pronounced with /w/; the phoneme /hw/ is retained, for example, in much of the American South, Scotland, and Ireland.” It is sometimes written ⟨ʍ⟩, a rotated lowercase letter ⟨w⟩.
    – tchrist
    Sep 1, 2012 at 16:44
  • @tchrist I know about all that. I don't see how it's related to either Tim's answer or my question. (I believed my knowledge of these things would be inferred from what I had written.)
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 20:32
  • @ymar That it isn’t just Scottish.
    – tchrist
    Sep 1, 2012 at 20:33

Some possibilities are shown in the Wikipedia article on the phonological history of wh.

The original proto-Indo-European has probably survived better in the Latin question words quis-quid-quo-quare-quando question words and had a kw-like pronunciation, which may have drifted through xw, hw, , ʍ, w, v and f in various Germanic languages and dialects.

The Scots quh- spellings are probably a combination of historical usage and a desire to emphasise that this is not the same sound as produced by the English. And there may be local differences; in Northern Scots the sound seems to have changed even more, under Gaelic influence.

As for "quho" and "quo" differing only in aspiration, this may be more explicitly related to the wine-whine merger, or lack of it in Scotland.

  • What is the Northern Scots sound? As far as I know, the PIE velar stop was already lost in Proto-Germanic in those words, but the Q-Celtic languages do retain it so you may have a point.
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 13:46
  • Wikipedia says "Northern dialects also have /f/ for /ʍ/" with a reference to: Johnston, Paul (1997) Regional Variation in Jones, Charles (ed.) The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language
    – Henry
    Sep 1, 2012 at 14:01
  • Is it demonstrably a Gaelic influence?
    – user18036
    Sep 1, 2012 at 14:02

The text quoted here is written by Alexander Hume in about 1617, and it is also quoted in David Chrystal's The Stories of English on page 299 if anyone's interested.

  • It's just that people might be interested in this when they are following the discussion, so you know, I thought I'd be helpful.
    – Elise
    Mar 30, 2018 at 14:12
  • I have up-voted your answer as it does contain relevant information and the points will get you nearer to being able to comment.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 30, 2018 at 14:21
  • Use citations in answers, if you please.
    – lbf
    Mar 30, 2018 at 14:35

What about the obvious possibility that the use of "qu" for "w" is an artifact of handwriting? If you start below the line with an upstroke which at its end turns to the left, and then downward to write the "w" as two "u"'s, and finish with a down stroke that turns to the right on the line, you will obtain "qu" without lifting the pen from the paper. This is just a speculation probably made by thousands of people who wondered about this.

  • 1
    That's imaginative, but I don't think all cases of "quh" can be explained as mis-readings of written "wh." Otherwise, why would the passage justifying "quh" quoted in the original question even exist? Also, if this were the case, then why wouldn't spellings like "quine" for wine, or "quater" for water be attested?
    – herisson
    Dec 26, 2015 at 22:06

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