My eldest is a beginning reader. Yesterday we read one of my favorite books, The Wreck of the Zephyr. He pointed at wreck and asked me why that one looked like it said "wuh-reck." I explained that spelling is funny like that sometimes.

This didn't satisfy my curiosity though. Silent w is not uncommon—we see it in the question word 'who' for instance—but it often appears in the combination wr-, and this is what I am curious about.

Was the w ever pronounced in these words (and if so, how)? Do these kind of words all share a common lineage that has some unique sound represented by this combination? (I am thinking of, for instance, that someone told me once that most words with ph come from Greek.)

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    The W is not silent... why would it be silent? W doesn't make the "wuh" sound. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:34
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    @jdstankosky What? How do you pronounce that word/letter then?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:48
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    Just like T in trap, nobody should be pronouncing it "Tuh-Rap". The T leads into the R. I pronounce the W the same way. It's subtle, not silent. This is along the same lines as "are" ('ahr') vs "our" ('owr'). They should not be pronounced the same, yet people do it anyways (heck, this I was how I was taught in grade school). Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 15:58
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    @jdstankosky 1. "are" and "our" are pronounced differently in certain dialects of English, and the same in others. It's incorrect to say universally that they "should not" be pronounced the same. 2. In most modern English dialects, the w is indeed silent in wr-. In yours I suppose it may not be. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 16:32
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    @StoneyB You can just say /r/ for English, since slashes are phonemic. I don't know of any modern dialects that distinguish /r-/ from /wr-/, as it says in your linked article: "Pairs such as wring – ring, write – right, wrap – rap are homophonous in all kinds of modern English" Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 17:47

5 Answers 5


Not My Field, so subject to correction:

In Old English the “voiced labiovelar approximant” /w/ was in fact pronounced in the initial clusters /wr/ and /wl/. Lass, Cambridge History of the English Language describes the loss of this pronunciation in the context of “Onset-cluster reduction” (III, page 122):

Witch/which, not/knot, Nash/gnash, rite/write are homophones in most varieties of English (see below on the first pair); conservative spelling preserves an earlier state. During our period [1476-1776] English underwent the most extensive simplification of onset clusters in any Germanic language. Old /wr,wl/ and /xn,xr,xl/ were lost in many other dialects, but /kn/ was generally retained (E *knee /ni:/ v. German, Swedish, Dutch /kni:/).
 By late Middle English /wl/ had reduced to /l/ (wlispian > lisp), and /xr,xl,xn/ to /r,l,n/ (hracu > rake, hlūd > loud, hnacod > naked). The only (from a modern perspective) ‘exotic’ clusters remaining were /xw/ (hwilc ‘which’), /wr/ (wrītan ‘write’), and /kn,gn/ (cnāwan ‘know’, gnagan ‘gnaw’). All except /xw/ (> /hw/:3.5.1) simplified in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; /hw/ remained for some southern speakers until well into this century, and is still stable in Scotland, Ireland and parts of North America.
 The first post-Middle English simplification is of /wr/: while most sixteenth-century sources are uninformative, Coote (1596) gives wrest/rest, wrung/rung as homophones. There is sporadic retention in Hodges (1644), and Jones (1701) seems to be the last mention of possible /wr/. In general, /wr/ > /r/ during the seventeenth century.

German developed similarly, but not contemporaneously. Joseph Wright, Historical German Grammar (1907), I,119:

§229.  Germanic w = Engl. w in wet (generally written uu, uv, vu, vv in OHG. manuscripts) remained initially before vowels in OHG. and MHG. as OHG wahsan, to grow, wëg, way, wësan, to be. It became the labio-dental spirant v (written w) = Engl. v in vat, in late MHG., and this has remained in NHG. [...] Initial w had disappeared before l,r in prehistoric OHG., as OHG. ant•luzzi, Goth. wlitz, face, countenance; OHG rëhhan, Goth. wrikan, to persecute.

  • Include some wh- words as well: whore (OE hore), whole ( OE hal). Similar looking ME wholy, ME whood, ME whord disappeared; and holy, hood and hoard were reintroduced.
    – RainDoctor
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 20:04
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    @RainDoctor As you imply, the /w/ was never present in these in OE; and for none was /wh/ the ordinary ME spelling. These spellings started appearing sporadically in the 14th century, but most are EME. At any rate, there's no question of their representing lost initial /w/. Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 21:53
  • @RainDoctor 'Wh-words' is more commonly applied to the interrogatives (etc) who, which, why ... (and how!). Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 15:05

StoneyB, Lass, and Wright have outlined the recent history of initial WR simplification. The ancient history of how they got that way is interesting, too.

I checked the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots and found, to my surprise, that all the words beginning with wr- in the American Heritage Dictionary (with etymologies traced to Proto-Indo-European, which includes all the words under discussion here) come from just two PIE roots:

  1. *wer³- Conventional base of various Indo-European roots; 'to turn, bend'. Derivatives include stalwart, weird, vertebra, wrath, wrong, wrestle, briar, rhapsody, and worm.

  2. *werg- 'to do'. Derivatives include work, urge, energy, allergy, wrought, irk, wright, bulwark, and boulevard.

Note that both of these roots have a vowel between the W and the R. That's not always true in the words they form, however. That's because of the Schwundstufe.

Indo-European, as far as we've been able to figure out, used vowel switching patterns regularly (the phenomenon is called Ablaut, a German term), so that for a given root, it is common to find both "E-Grade" and "O-Grade" words in daughter languages, like Latin pedis vs Greek podos, both meaning 'foot'.

There's a third Grade, however, called "Zero-Grade"; that's where the vowel is neither E nor O but rather absent. In the original German it's Schwundstufe, the 'disappearing grade'; sounds both mystical and official.

And that's what wright and wrought and wrath and wrestle and so on come from. They're Schwundstufen. They come from processes or previous alternants of words with that root where the vowel became superfluous and was dispensed with. These always conform to the pronunciation norms (the phonology) of the people speaking them at the time; when these norms change, as Lass explains in StoneyB's answer, things happen.

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    Wow! tchrist was saying in chat how all those words seemed to have something twisted about them. Now I know why.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 16:47
  • This stuff hangs around for a long time. Look at ST- initial words, for instance. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 16:54
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    I wish I'd thought to go to that source, which I actually have. I'm afraid Schwundstufe is more pedestrian, merely "disappearing grade": Stufe = step on a stair = L. gradus. But it does have a very solemn Schwung to it. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 17:34

These are generally words of Germanic extraction, where the German w is pronounced like our English v.

The German equivalent of English wreck is Wrack, pronounced roughly “vrahk”. German also has wringen, pronounced “vringen”, which is equivalent to English wring.

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    OK, but why did the W become silent in English? And it doesn't even have to be at the beginning. Sword is another example, vs German Schwert.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 13:31
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    @Mr. Lister It's the other way round: /w/ became /v/ in MHG. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 14:05
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    @MrLister You might be interested in this question.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 14:39
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    As Stoney said, this explanation has it backwards. The original pronunciation is [wr], the [w] > [v] in German is an innovation as much as the [w] > 0 in English. Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 17:09
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    Interesting; I've learned something here. My Duden says that "Wrack" and "wringen" come from Dutch, so perhaps speakers of OHG didn't have to wrestle (another one!) with pronouncing those words with the old-style "w."
    – user32047
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 13:07

What most people find problematic about the wr- blend (and what they are usually most curious about) is how it could have ever possibly been pronounced to begin with, since w to r requires a complete repositioning of the tongue and lips, which would naturally insert an intrusive vowel between them to sound like "werist", for example. Although we can't know for certain, as the w died out early in Modern English, it was mostly likely not pronounced as a blend at all, but instead, the w colored the r so that the tongue would be positioned for the r, but the lips would be rounded to form w, resulting in a phoneme that no longer exists in Modern English.

Some linguists speculate that the wr- blend is a remnant of a time when r was a flip instead of a liquid, and in that case the w would be pronounced independently. This may have been true early on, but the r was probably a liquid by Late Middle English and the w was still pronounced, so that the repositioning of the mouth as described above would have been still been likely.

  • In fact, what I've heard is that modern English /r/ at the start of a syllable is usually pronounced with w-coloring or labialization. So in a way, we pronounce words like "ring" with the sound of "wring," rather than the other way around. By "flip" do you mean "flap"? I think flaps are still considered liquids, aren't they?
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 5:37

Regardless of whether or not the "wr" phoneme exists officially in Modern English, I tend to find that the American dialect often pronounces "wr" slighly differently than the "r" as noted in other posts. A search for how to pronounce "wreck" shows the phoneme "rek" and the "write" shows the phoneme /rait/, but the actual pronunciation on the same websites will be slightly different because the mouth is prepositioned for the "w". If you want to encourage kids to practice writing, you don't say, "Lets 'rite'!" It sounds horrible. You actually have to position your mouth for the "w" sound in order to properly pronounce "write".

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    I absolutely would say "Let's rite." It's one of the three Rs, after all: reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Are you sure that you can actually hear a consistent distinction? It's easy to imagine that kind of thing.
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 5:41
  • This is completely untrue. To nearly all Americans, the mouth is also positioned for a w when pronouncing reck/rite, because all initial /r/’s are labialised. There are dialects where this is not the case (most prominently Scottish dialects), but in these, /wr/ also tends not to be labialised. Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 7:28

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