Q: My mom, a high-school English teacher, has given me a hard time all my life (I’m 42 now) about not pronouncing the “h” in “wh-” words like “why,” “what,” “which,” and “when.” Just the other day, she was nagging me about the “h” in “whale.” I think it sounds affected and unnatural to pronounce the “h” in these words.
A: In modern American usage, these “wh-” words can be pronounced with either a simple “w” sound at the beginning, or with a breathier “hw” sound. Online standard American dictionaries recognize both of those pronunciations, though the “h”-less one is much more common.
This wasn’t always the case. The “hw” pronunciation is preferred, for example, in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).
This trend away from the “hw” sound isn’t restricted to American English. The “h”-less pronunciation is the only one listed in most standard British dictionaries.
We discussed the pronunciations of “why,” “what,” “which,” and “when” in a 2011 post, so we’ll focus here on “whale,” which is now pronounced as either “wale” or “hwale” in American usage.
Online standard American dictionaries, like American Heritage, Merriam-Webster’s, and Dictonary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), recognize both pronunciations. Online British dictionaries, like Cambridge, Longman, and Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), list only the “h”-less pronunciation.
For most English speakers, the words “whale,” “wail,” and “wale” are homophones—words that are pronounced alike but differ in spelling, meaning, or origin. As Merriam-Webster explains in a usage note, “in most dialects the words are pronounced identically, making them auditorily indistinguishable.”
The oldest of the three words, “whale,” referred to any large sea creature when it first appeared in Old English as hwæl. At that time, the hw was pronounced like a breathy “w” and the æ ligature sounded like the “a” of “pal.”
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a horshwæl, or walrus, as a small hwæl:
“Se hwæl bið micle læssa þonne oðre hwalas” (“That whale is much smaller than other whales”). From a late ninth-century translation of Orosius’s Historiae Adversus Paganos, written in Latin in the early fifth century.
The usage is also found in an Old English poem that uses hwale for a mythical sea creature that’s a cross between a serpent and a turtle. The creature is so big that seafarers mistake it for an island and board it—to their regret. Here’s the beginning of the poem, from the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry:
“Nu ic fitte gen ymb fisca cynn wille woðcræfte wordum cyþan þurh modgemynd bi þam miclan hwale. Se bið unwillum oft gemeted, frecne ond ferðgrim, fareðlacendum, niþþa gehwylcum; þam is noma cenned, fyrnstreama geflotan, Fastitocalon.”
(“Behold, from my wellspring of song and speech, I’ll craft a poem about a giant among the tribe of fish, the whale. Men who sail the sea oft encounter him unwillingly, that dread stalker of mankind. He’s named, as we know, the ocean swimmer, Fastitocalon.”) The name comes from the Greek άσπιδoχελώνη (aspidocheloni), or asp turtle.
The word was spelled various ways in Middle English (whal, wal, whall, wale, whalle, and so on) until whale showed up in the late 14th century. The first OED citation with the modern spelling is from “The Summoner’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1386):
“Me thynketh they been lyk Iovinyan / Fat as a whale and walkynge as a swan.” (Iovinyan, the whale-like character mentioned here, was Jovinian, a fourth-century monk who opposed ascetism.)
With the Old English and Middle English examples we’ve seen, it’s unclear exactly when the word evolved from its original sense of a large sea creature to its modern meaning of a very large marine mammal with a fishlike body, a horizontal tail fin, and a hole for breathing on top of its head.
The online Merriam-Webster Unabridged places the “first known use” of the modern sense at some time “before 12th century,” but it doesn’t give a citation.
In a 2016 post, we discuss some other “wh-” words that began with hw– in Old English, such as hwæt (“what”), hwanne (“when”), hwǽr, (“where”), hwæs (“whose”), hwā (“who”), hwí (“why”), hwelc (“which”), and hwæðer (“whether”).
The OED says the “normal Old English spelling hw was generally preserved in early Middle English,” and the “modern spelling wh is found first in regular use in the Ormulum,” a 12th-century religious work in which whillc is used for “which.”
“In Old English the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath,” according to the dictionary. (A voiced bilabial consonant is one in which the vocal cords vibrate and the air flow is restricted by the lips.)
Interestingly, the words that began with hw in Old English have given us two types of “wh” words today: those in which the “w” sound predominates (“why,” “where,” “when,” etc.) and those in which the “h” sound predominates (“who,” “whole,” “whose”).