Which Witch did the White Whale Whistle at?

Poor Wales, they put up a great fight, but a win for Portugal was a fair result, and at least they can be quite proud of getting to the semi-finals at all. Hearing the word Wales in the last few days made me think of the many childhood jokes based on the fact that Wales and Whales sound so similar.

You might have noticed that I’ve just said that Wales and whales sound similar. Not the same: similar. Hang on, you might be thinking: they sound identical! What’s he talking about!?

And you’re right: they are identical. But I’m also right: they’re similar. Isn’t English wonderful!?

Most people around the world pronounce Wales and whales identically. But some of us, especially in Ireland and Scotland, emphasise the h in words that begin with wh, pronouncing it as /hw/ rather than /w/. I’m not normally a Family Guy fan, but this scene sums up the difference pretty well:

I’m firmly in the Stewie camp on this one. For most of you reading this, pronouncing words like that might sound bizarre. That pairs of word like wight/white, which/witch, and wear/where aren’t homophones (words that sound identical)? Crazy as it might seem, it’s completely natural for me, and for most people I know.

And in fact, most wh-words where originally pronounced that way. Slowly though, the /hw/ sound gradually came to dominate (through a process with the great name: the wine/whine merger), and is now the most common pronunciation worldwide. Why we still pronounce words in the older fashion in some parts of the world, I can’t say. But then there isn’t always a clear logic for these things.

It reminds me of a similar element of Irish pronunciation: the pronunciation of the letter h. Almost all Irish people pronounce it as haitch, as opposed to aitch. I became aware of the difference in pronunciation as a child through hearing British characters’ pronunciation on TV. Despite that though, haitch always seemed logical to me, as it starts with an h sound. But, I learned to get used to pronouncing it the more common way once I started teaching English, so as not to confuse my students.

Still though, I don’t think I’ll ever stop pronouncing the haitch in whales!


6 thoughts on “Which Witch did the White Whale Whistle at?

  1. For some reason when I make an effort to pronounce the “h”, it’s like I’m saying it before the “w” rather than after it. I’m probably just being weird!

    Liked by 1 person

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