Wednesday, October 14, 2009


A recent post by the lovely and talented Boudicca on a question of pronunciation has generated a veritabobble firestorm of commentary... and so I may as well pile on.

The question had to do with the pronunciation of the word “wheat,” and, by extension, other words with the “wh” phoneme: whisky, whether, while, where, & cetera. Do you pronounce the “h” or not? And if so, how?

I was taught phonics in grade school, which distinguishes me from an entire generation that was taught “whole word” reading. And one of the things I was taught was that when a word begins with “wh,” the “wh” is pronounced “hw” - with the “h” a barely aspirated sound. So “wheat” would be pronounced “hweet,” and “whisky” “hwisky.”

She Who Must Be Obeyed, who teaches Language Arts, agrees. The letter “W” does not actually represent a sound in and of itself, but rather a mouth position in which the lips form an “O.” Any sound will come from the vowel or diphthong that follows it. But if it is followed by an “H,” the H is lightly aspirated as though it came before the W.

This is how you can distinguish between, say, “whether” and “weather.” The former has the aspirated H; the latter does not.

[One notable exception: the word “whore,” which is not pronounced “hwore,” but rather, “hore.” Unless you’re from New Jersey, in which case it’s “hoo-ah.”]

Of course, being the lazy and/or ignorant slobs we all are, few people bother with these niceties during the course of everyday conversation. After all, saying “weet” instead of “hweet” gets the point across... and you are less likely to get the shit kicked out of you by people who resent your putting on airs.

But I am curious: Do you pronounce the “H”? Whether you do or not, where did you grow up? And were you taught phonics or whole-word reading? My suspicion is that people who learned by the “whole word” method will not pronounce the aitch... but that’s just a suspicion.

There are a few other words that will separate the Pronunciation Pedants from the rest of us slobs. Jewelry. February. And, trickiest of all, Wednesday. I am convinced that only the Brits really know how to say the name of that dreaded weekday properly (WED-n’s-day) - we Americans haven’t a clue.

Of course, that should be no surprise. We’ve had Presidents (George W. Bush being only the most recent example) who could not pronounce the word “nuclear” - although if you have the Football o’ Thermonuclear Death at your side, it doesn’t much matter how you pronounce it. [I pronounce it “We’re all fucked.”]

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