/hw-/ > /w-/ again

Mark Hale hale1 at alcor.concordia.ca
Sun Sep 15 22:17:14 UTC 1996

At 04:00 PM 9/14/96 +0100, Prof. Trask wrote:
>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.
As far as I know the existence of a contrast between [kW] (a labiovelar)
and sequences of the type /k/ + /w/ (similarly for the voiced and voiced
aspirated series) is universally accepted by IEists. The ancestor of
the /hw/ of 'what' is a labiovelar.
>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-/.
Etymological source is not probative for determining the synchronic
phonological status of segments.
>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
As the vowels show, alliteration is feature-driven, rather than
segment-driven. The alliteration facts point to some phonetic
similarity between the segments, but not to identity.
>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.
Prof. Trask's "feelings" are, unfortunately, also non-probative, no matter
when he started feeling them. They are non-probative for the Modern English
dialect he speaks, and completely irrelevant to the question of the status
of /hw/ in Old English. Even if Prof. Trask were *considerably* older than
he appears.
>The OE spelling is, of course, entirely consistent with the cluster
>interpretation, but is hardly decisive.
*hardly decisive* is rather an understatement: 'completely irrelevant' would
be closer to the mark, in my view.
I agree with Prof. Trask that the matter is not completely determinable by
the evidence. But we should distinguish between arguments which might in
principle support a particular analysis and those which are in fact not

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