Wednesday, June 20, 2012

W is for wh

I have a long relationship with wh. I didn’t need it when I moved to New Zealand, but, then, maybe I will again. I’d better explain.

Wh is what linguists call a voiceless labiovelar (labialized velar) approximant. Labiovelar refers to words with a w sound in them as a secondary characteristic, with the lips ending up in a rounded shape, ready to make a w. In this particular case, the sound is secondary to the h, and all of that is why it’s voiceless (if voiced, it would be a w).

Confused? Yeah, my eyes start to glaze over, too. What all of this is talking about is that wh is pronounced more like hw. So, one starts exhaling, forms a w and says the word.

There should be even more confusion at this point because most variants of English have dropped this sound in favour of a plain old w. In English, interrogative words—ones that begin questions—are the so-called “wh-words”: Why, who, which, what, where, when, and how. At one time, not so very long ago, many of these words actually began a bit like how, in particular: “hwere”, “hwich” and so on.

When I was a boy, my mother used to say, “whether it rains, or whether is snows, we shall have weather, whether or no.” She learned this when she was a child in the 1920s and 30s, and it was meant to underscore the difference in the pronunciation between whether (pronounced “hwether”) and weather (pronounced then the same way as now).

Fast forward many years, and I arrived in New Zealand and encountered Maori words starting with wh, like whanau, or placenames like Whangarei. I was taught that wh was pronounced like f. I was also told many times that this was because the missionaries who first started printing things in the Maori language (Te Reo Maori) ran out of the letter F. Nice story, but it’s not true.

My first clue to the truth came when I saw a book that went with a course to teach Maori. It was published decades ago and said that wh was pronounced hw—just as it had once been in English. This more credibly explains why the English picked wh to start Maori words they were writing down. Nevertheless, everyone I heard in contemporary New Zealand pronounced wh as f.

Then, only a few years ago, a Maori politician, Tariana Turia, said on a TV interview one night that one of her kaumatua (pronounced “koh-MAH-too-uh” – basically, an elder) told her that for their iwi (“ee-wee”, or tribe), wh should be pronounced like hw. So, unlike most other Maroi leaders and politicians then or now, that’s what she uses, not the f used by most others.

Two things fascinate me about this. First, the Maori language never died out, even though it was in pretty dire straits by the middle of the last century, and yet there’s still some confusion and disagreement about how wh should be pronounced for Maori words. The other, more personal, thing is that after all these years, my mother’s little saying taught me to be able to pronounced wh the hw way. So, once it’s all decided, I can pronounce Maori words with wh correctly no matter what’s chosen. Unfortunately, I don’t actually speak te reo Maori, so that’s more symbolic than anything. It’ll have to do for now because I don’t know hwen—or hwether—I’ll be able to learn it.

This week, I made the graphic to illustrate this post because, oddly, I couldn’t find one to illustrate what I was talking about. Funny, that.

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PhenoMenon, ABCW Team said...

Wow!! I love such histories about languages. Good thing it wasn't spelt Whow, I wouldn;t be able to pronounce it !! ;)

PhenoMenon, ABCW Team

Shooting Parrots said...

Fascinating stuff! You've made me realise that I do occasionally pronounce the interrogative words as 'hw'.

Berowne said...

I'm always in favor of posts with CONTENT - especially ineresting content, like yours. Thanks.

Roger Owen Green said...

hwat are you talking about?

I jest.

Having an eight-year-old, I have been very fascinated about word pronunciation and spelling, and how native speakers in the US generally just gradually pick it up. Meanwhile, my wife, who teaches English as a Second Language, needs to explain the rules that native speakers would be oblivious to.

And nice story about your mother.

ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Ann, Chen Jie Xue 陈洁雪 said...

You go skiing in that F a papa mountian?

Roger told me about you, when did you come to NZ?

Chubskulit Rose said...

Thanks for elaborating this topic Arthur, it's really interesting. I watched one show showcasing NZ and they definitely have their own form of language..

EJ said...

Wish to visit New Zealand someday.

Following your blog now.

epilonious said...

Cool hwhip! Cool whip? Cool hwhip!

amerinz's sis said...

I wonder who taught Mom that clever saying, and when and where.
And why didn't I ever hear it?

Great story!! Very interesting!!

lotusleaf said...

Whow amazing!

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I'm starting to venture out to comment more on other ABC Wednesday posts, and will do that even more. So, I definitely appreciate my fellow ABCW folks stopping by here!

Some answers to questions:

Ann: I've been living in New Zealand since 1995.

epilonious: Your choice; it's not available here—although we do have whipped cream with actual cream in an aerosol can…

Sis: It was when she was in primary school, I believe. We often talked about language (often in the context of poetry, literature and writing), but I don't know that it would have come up otherwise.

d said...

Catching up on my reading again...

This post about the "Wh/hw" sound reminds me of how Stewie (on the show Family Guy) says "Wil Wheaton":