Q: Please explain to me why some people, generally older and perhaps Southern, pronounce the word “what” in such a way that it sounds as if it’s spelled “hwat.” I hope my cumbersome explanation conveys what I’m asking.
A: In modern American usage, “what” can be pronounced with either a simple “w” sound at the beginning, or with a breathier “hw” sound
In standard American dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), both of those pronunciations are acceptable.
This wasn’t always true. Formerly, the latter pronunciation—it sounds something like HWUT—was preferred. For example, our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition), gives that as the only pronunciation.
But today, while both pronunciations are acceptable, the “hw” sound is losing ground. Most Americans have dropped the “h” sound at the beginning of “what” and other such words (“which,” “why,” “when,” “whim,” “white,” and so on).
These days, as you suggested, the “hw” sound is more likely to be heard in parts of the South than elsewhere in the country.
This trend away from the “hw” sound isn’t restricted to American English. Modern British usage favors an “h”-less pronunciation of “what” that sounds something like WOT.
The online Macmillan Dictionary, which has both British and American versions, gives both “w” and “hw” pronunciations for American usage but only one, the “h”-less version, for British usage. The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, which also has US and UK pronunciations, agrees.
As you might suspect, the “hw” pronunciation is the much older one. In fact, when “what” first showed up in Old English in the 700s, the word was spelled with an “h” in front: hwaet or huaet.
The British began losing the “h” sound in “what” long before Americans did, and even before the Colonies existed.
We found an interesting perspective on all this in Kate Burridge’s book Weeds in the Garden of Words (2005).
Burridge, an Australian linguist, writes, “Over the years English has been simplifying the clusters of consonants it allows, in particular the clusters that occur at the beginning of syllables.”
“We know that the change in pronunciation from ‘hw’ to ‘w’ started in the south of England as early as the Middle Ages, but it couldn’t have been a big hit, since the ‘hw’ cluster went across to North America in the 17th century,” she goes on to say.
In 18th-century England, Burridge adds, “the pronunciation ‘w’ was clearly gaining ground. It had even begun to creep into the speech of the educated, who had earlier condemned it.”
“By 1800 which and witch and whether and weather had become homophones in Standard English pronunciation,” she writes. “The cluster is managing to hang in there in places like Scotland and Ireland, but everywhere else it’s well and truly on the way out.”
Update: A reader of the blog calls our attention to an episode of the animated TV show “Family Guy” in which Stewie, the precocious infant, asks for “Cool Hwip topping.”