/hw-/ > /w-/ again

Larry Trask larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk
Sat Sep 14 15:00:10 UTC 1996

Mark Hale is quite right to point out that virtually all IEists
consider that the PIE ancestor of English /hw-/ was a single segment,
a labialized velar, and not a cluster -- though I have occasionally
seen it suggested that PIE might actually have had a contrast between
a /kw/ cluster and a labialized velar.  (Anybody know if this idea is
still taken seriously?)  But I don't think we can really tell whether
OE /hw-/ was a single segment or a cluster.
Likewise, he is probably right to suggest that OE /hl-/, /hr-/, and
/hn-/ were most likely voiceless resonants at the phonetic level, but
again I don't think we can be certain that that's what they were
I would make three points.
First, OE /hl-/, /hr-/, /hn-/ are, I think, universally agreed to
derive from PIE clusters */kl-/, */kr-/, */kn-/.  Hence there has
certainly been cluster reduction somewhere along the line for these
three, if not for /hw-/.
Second, in OE alliterating poetry, /h-/ regularly and freely
alliterates with all of /hw-/, /hl-/, /hr-/, and /hn-/, suggesting
that, if anything, these items were perceived by speakers as
Third, I myself "feel" my /hw-/ to be a cluster of /h/ + /w/, and
have felt the same since childhood, when I first noticed that English
had phonemes -- even if the phoneticians tell me that I'm actually
producing a single segment, a voiceless glide.
The OE spelling is, of course, entirely consistent with the cluster
interpretation, but is hardly decisive.
Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk

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