I was watching World Cup downhill skiing from Kvitfjell, Norway, today, and I thought, “Huh, Kvitfjell. That must mean ‘white mountain’.”

Which, of course, it did. Now, it’s not that I speak Norwegian, but I do know that fjell means “mountain” (cognate with the English noun fell, now uncommon) and I had good reason to expect that kvit was “white”.

You see, although “white” in modern German is weiss, just as “what” is wass and “which” is welcher (or welche or welches), and in Dutch the three are wit, wat, and welk, meaning that in both languages it’s just w now (pronounced /v/ or, in Dutch, something close to it), I knew that in Icelandic, the three are hvítur, hvað, and hver, with the hv pronounced [kv] or [kf]. And I see, looking it up, that “white” is hvid in Danish and hvit in standard Norwegian (yes, the kvit spelling is a different dialect), though the h seems most likely to go unpronounced.

We should also notice that in many of our modern English wh words, there are Latin equivalents in qu: quid means “what” and quis means “which”, for instance. (Latin for “white” comes from a different root.) This is most notably so with question words (note that question also starts with qu), which we refer to as wh words in English (and in fact linguists will often call the set the “wh- words” even in other languages, though I’d rather think “qu- words” would have a more widespread verity).

This is because they all come from the same Proto-Indo-European roots, which had a /kw/ onset – that oral gesture that may be like sucking or like kissing, but either way involves both front and back of the mouth, with a sort of tension between the lips pushing outward and the tongue sticking at the back. As the various Indo-European languages developed, the /kw/ was preserved in some, and in others became /sw/ (as in Sanskrit svetah “white”, Old Church Slavonic svetu “light”, and Lithuanian sviesti “shine”), or reduced to /k/ (as in various words for “who”: Sanskrit ka, Lithuenian ka, Irish ) or even changed to /p/ or /pw/ (Greek poteros and Welsh pwy for “who”), or – as in Germanic languages – altered to /hw/ and in some cases ultimately reduced to /w/. (And in some Scots English dialects, under the influence of Gaelic phonotactics, the /hw/ has sometimes moved to /f/, as in fit “what” – the voicelessness and labial location are preserved, but the rest is changed.)

This leaves us with two questions particularly relevant to English. First, are white and what and which now /w/ onset words, at least in some versions of English? Second, why do we write them with wh when obviously we say either /w/ or /hw/ but never /wh/?

To look at the first question first: here in Canada, as in much of the United States, you will normally hear them with just /w/. But the odds are pretty good that there’s still a citation form (as linguists call them) with a /hw/. Get someone to say “I saw a wight which saw a white witch” and then have someone ask them to repeat it more clearly, and you have a good chance of hearing the /hw/ on the wh words. For that matter, there are times (say, when addressing an impatient woman briefly) when one might say Which? very clearly so as not to be thought to be saying Witch! And some people will find they are more likely to say /hw/ in some contexts – for instance, Rosemary Tanner (who suggested this exploration) finds that white gets the voiceless onset when referring to snow and freshly washed laundry. At the same time, of course, we have lots of fun with the usual homophony, for instance with Which witch is which? So there’s no question of our not being aware that we usually say it just /w/!

There is, by the way, some question of whether it’s really accurate to say it’s /hw/. Say /h/, as in the start of how. Now say /w/ as in win. Now tack the one onto the other: h-win. Does that seem quite like what you say when you say when? Or maybe a bit too separated? Dollars to doughnuts your lips are already rounded when you start the /h/ sound, in fact. So really it’s a voiceless /w/ (the IPA symbol is /ʍ/, an upside-down w), and it might get some voicing at the end.

But it undoubtedly came from a /hw/, which came from a /kw/. And in fact in Old English it was written hw. So hwat happened? Well, it changed during the Middle English period. Somewhere in the 1200s scribes started using wh, possibly under the influence of some Norman French spellings of some words (that’s how we got our sh and ch spellings for what had up to then been written sc and c). We’re not actually altogether sure why the change was made, in fact.

But it didn’t happen all at once; it was dragged out, and uneven. In fact, the list of different spellings of white in the OED is rather long, starting with the old hwit and moving to such as wit and wyt (yes, at one time we left off the h in spelling) as well as to whit and whyte and so on but also to an assortment of others, such as qwyte, quhyt, and qwyght.

The same pattern holds true for our various wh question words, of course. The interesting case is who, wherein the /w/ has been altogether dropped; it started out as hwa in Old English, but once the sound had moved to be /hwu/, the more natural progression was to /hu/, assimilating the two rounded sounds and keeping the voiceless opener for an onset. Interestingly, this also happened to the Old English hwo, which became hu… and then, in Modern English, how. How do you like that? And who would have thought it, eh? What do you know…

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