Larry Trask larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk
Sat Jan 30 10:48:37 UTC 1999

On Fri, 29 Jan 1999, Peter &/or Graham wrote:

> Larry writes of initial /hw/ as if it were indeed /hw/.  I have seen
> this description of it in the text books, and been puzzled by it.
> In my dialect (NZ) it is a voiceless /w/.  There is no /h/ at all.

> I'm just checking back, I guess.   Do some speakers actually say /h/+ /w/?
> I always thought the textbooks were wrong.

Historically, this thing is /hw-/, and that's how it was spelled in Old
English, as in <hwit> `white'.  After the Norman Conquest, a new
spelling convention was introduced, our modern <wh>, apparently because
the thing was perceived by some people as a voiceless [w].

In fact, for most (all?) speakers who have this thing, it is indeed
phonetically a single sound, voiceless [w], represented in the IPA by an
inverted <w>.  This is true for me as well in casual speech, though in
emphatic speech I pronounce it, roughly, as an [h] followed by a
voiceless [w].

Now, some people who have it perceive it clearly as an /h/ followed by a
/w/, and that includes me.  But others who have it perceive it equally
clearly as a single consonant, voiceless /w/.  You are apparently one of

Consequently, analyses differ.  Phonemically, most linguists write /hw/,
partly because that's the historical state of affairs and partly because
that conforms to some speakers' intuitions.  But there are some
linguists who prefer to say that the relevant accents do not have an
/hw/ cluster but rather an additional consonant phoneme, the inverted
<w>.  This second is the minority view, but it makes sense for some
speakers.  But it does require the use of the inverted <w>, which is
awkward if you haven't got a good phonetic font available.

In my posting, I might have used the phonetic symbols inverted <w> and
normal <w> to represent the two styles of pronunciation, but I can't
print the inverted <w>, and so I used [hw] and [w] instead.

It's interesting that we speakers who retain the traditional
pronunciation differ so sharply in our perceptions of what we're saying.
We have the same phonetics, but two very different understandings of
what we're "really" doing.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

larryt at cogs.susx.ac.uk

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