I was thinking today of all the words beginning with “Wh–.” Four of the five main journalistic questions are words that begin with Wh–. They are What? Where? When? and Why? (wot, ware, wen, and wy.) The other word/question is Who? All of the first four are pronounced as if the H were not there, or sometimes, as if it were faintly present before the W. The word “Who” is not. It is pronounced “Hoo.”
I wondered wy. So I mentally started going through all the words I could think of that began with WH.
what when where why wheat white while wheel whine whisky whale whack wharf. All of these were pronounced with the w or (h)w sound.
However, the few words beginning with W-H-O–who whom whose whole whore–were pronounced hoo hoom hooz hole hore. Two words that may be exceptions are “whoa” and “whooping” (crane or cough.) I grew up among people hoo said “hooping,” and it was only as an adult living in the south that I heard someone call it “wooping.”
“It must be the O that changes the pronunciation,” thought I, although I could not see any reason wy it should. It is no more difficult to say woo, woom, wooz, wole, or wore. It just does not sound right! Is that a good enough reason? Or is there an ancient rule for these words that I do not know? (In WH combinations, pronounce H before W except before O, in which case, the W is silent and the H is pronounced, unless a word is excepted by local tradition.) That may be it… 😉
English is a language mostly borrowed and evolved from other older languages that have stayed as they were originally–Latin, Greek, and Germanic. Because it is mixed, we can have soft G(J) or hard G before E and I, and sometimes Y, but not an H sound.
We can have strange spelling rules, such as “I before E, except after C, or when it sounds like AY, as in neighbor and weigh.” We get used to these things, and they do not seem difficult, if we started learning them as infants.
My hat is off to anyone who learns to speak and understand English as a second or third language, and even learns to sound like an American. If he has also learned to spell and write with correct English grammar, I am in awe.
PS: More Wh– words! (Once I get started, my brain keeps looking for more examples, all day long.)
whip whisper Whig whisker whelp whey–all (h)w sounds.
But try as I might, I cannot come up with a word starting with “whu.” But I have not tried looking in a dictionary yet. Please let me know if you find one!