One of the most puzzling mysteries of the English language – why is «who» pronounced different than the other wh-words? Why do these words have a H in the first place? Where do the digraph and the pronunciation originate from?
Let’s dive into the Wh-Phenomenon to get some answers!
As the name already indicates, the wh-words are words that start with wh-.
While English is a language famous for how irregular its spelling and pronunciation are, the wh-words do not vary as much as other digraphs, like the ending -gh, for example.
The pronunciation of wh- in English is actually quite regular: it will always be pronounced either /w/ or /h/.
To start things off, let me show you a list of a few wh-words, sorted by their pronunciation:
|/w/ Pronunciation||/h/ Pronunciation|
|Exceptions with /w/||Exceptions with /h/|
Looking at the regular words, it is very obvious what the pattern is: if wh- precedes an “o”, it will be pronounced /h/, other wise it will be pronounced /w/.
Let’s not explain this yet – let’s take a look at the exceptions first.
The word whop, pronounced with /w/, originally comes from the word wap, a hit or a blow. It is pronounced with /w/ just because wap is pronounced so in the first place.
The word whoosh is of imitative origin, an onomatopoeia, so it really has no real reason to be written with wh-.
Whole, even though it seems to follow the pattern, it is an exception. It derives from the Proto-Germanic *haila-, with the meaning of undamaged. It is pronounced with /h/ because *haila- was pronounced with it too.
Now, you might be thinking that all the non exceptions from either pronunciation group derive from words that were originally pronounced either /h/ or /w/.
That is a logical assumption, but it isn’t the right explanation.
You see, all these words were actually pronounced with /hw/. Sort of.
Before we continue, let me differentiate between two distinct groups of wh-words: relative/interrogative wh-pronouns and other wh-words.
All the relative and interrogative wh-words originate from the common Proto-Indoeuropean stems *kwo and *kwi.
The /k/ sound in the words derived from these stems eventually shifted to /h/ and this ended up giving us a bunch of words in Old English that where spelled with hw- and pronounced /hw/.
Some examples are: hwā (who), hwæt (what), hwās (whose), hwær (where), hwile (while), etc.
When a Great Vowel shift happened, some of these words also changed their vowel sounds. And some of these vowel sounds happened to become the rounded vowel sounds /o:/ and /u:/.
And here is where the pronunciation starts to diverge – hw-words with a rounded sound would drop the /w/ sound due to the close similarity of /w/ and /o:/ and /u:/.
Words like what would also change their vowels to a rounded sound, though this would happen much later after the hw-words had already changed.
After this change, some dialects started to drop the /h/ sound in the cluster /hw/. Giving us the pronunciation of words like what, where, while, etc. in Modern English.
Since words like hwā (who), did not belong to the /hw/ group anymore, they were not affected by this change, thus keeping the /h/ and giving us words like who or whom.
The spelling of these words would eventually swap the hw for wh but it would retain the new pronunciations.
As for the other wh-words, the ones that aren’t interrogative or relative pronouns and therefore do not originate from either *kwo- nor *kwi-, well… they evolved from words that were originally pronounced with either /hw/ or /kw/ as well.
There is not much mystery here – these words also suffered the same consonant mutation that the interrogative/relative wh-words did, dropping their /h/ sounds.
Some examples would be the Old English words hwæl (whale), hwit (white), hweol (wheel), hwisprian (whisper).
The vowels following a /hw/ sound did not undergo a vowel shift to the rounded sound /o:/ or /u:/ and so their /h/ sounds were also dropped at one point.
And there we have it, this is the reason why these wh-words are pronounced as they are.
As an important final note, I think it is important to mention how this consonant change did not happen everywhere where Old English was spoken. While it happened completely in England and Wales, the change did not occur in Scotland and most of Ireland. This explains why in some dialects today the wh-words are pronounced using /hw/.