The development and change of the phoneme /w/ in Canadian English

Seminar Paper 2008 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Historical development of phoneme [w]

3. Change in progress

4. Age and variations

5. Regional variations

6. Social embedding of variation and change

7. The reasons for the change

8. The future of the phoneme /hw/

9. Development of a Continental standard


List of obbreviations


Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

1. Introduction

„Not all variability and heterogeneity in language structure involves change, but all change involves variability and heterogeneity“ (Weinreich 1968:188)

From the point of view of a continental standard, Canadian English exhibits remarkable phonetic patterns. This term paper demonstrates the development and change of the phoneme /w/ in Canadian English following the research by Chambers. This paper will begin by taking a quick look at the historical development of the phoneme. The phoneme /w/ has several realizations in various dialects of English. Canada is one of the countries where the allophone [hw] has been rather persistent. Nevertheless, /hw/-pronunciation has been disappearing there over the years. I try to indicate how the phoneme is changing recently illustrating this with case studies whenever possible. The age, social classes of subjects as well as the regions of Canada are especially relevant for the given description.

2.Historical development of phoneme [w]

Nowadays, the contrast between preaspirated phoneme /hw/ and plain voiced /w/ survives in some regions, including Scotland, Ireland and Canada (Chambers 2002: 357). These phonemes have a long history. They came from Germanic, which was the ancestor of English. In the early Middle Age these phonemes were pronounced as a labialized voiceless velar fricative /xw/ and were written as <quh>. We can find a trace of that in the Scottish translation of the Aeneid, Book V by Gavin Douglas, ca 1515:

Quh idder bradis thou now sa fast, without abaid?

Quh idder hastis thou swa? Quh om fleys thou?

Quh at is the let I may the(e) nocht embrace? (Chambers 2002: 356)

When we take a look at the translation of the Aeneid made by Charles Bowen 375 years after Douglas's, we'll find out that Bowen put <wh> for preaspirated aproximant - /hw/:

Wh ither away? Enaes replies; “wh y hurrying so?

Wh om dost dread? Wh at bids thee avoid my loving embrace?” (Chambers 2002: 356)

Clearly, the spelling variations of the cognate question-words in both translations encode the phonetic differences. Chambers notes that most of the native speakers of English pronounce the words whither, what and why with voiced labiodental-velar approximant /w/; in the Bowen's epoch they were pronounced with /hw/ - preaspirated labiodental-velar approximant or // - voiceless labio-velar fricative; for Duglas (1457­1522) contemporaries it was /xw/- labialized voiceless velar fricative.

The origins of the phoneme can be traced to much older times. By Grimm's Law1 the Germanic phoneme /xw/ was developed from Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of Germanic, where the question-words whither, what and why were pronounced with the labialized voiceless velar stop *kw. This change is called lenition - „a weakening from stop to fricative to approximant.“ (Chambers 2002: 356) It continues three thousand years.

*kw LENITION: PIE *kw > Germanic, Old English Scots /xw/ > Middle English, modern Scots /hw/ > modern English /w/. (Chambers 2002: 357)

The historical records of this development were taken by Chambers from written texts.

3.Change in progress

We may find that English spelling of the words whales and Wales, wheel and weal, whey and way, Whig and wig, whinny and Winnie etc. preserves a distinctions in pronunciation.

Some time ago, the first word in each pair was pronounced with /hw/ - preaspirated labiodental-velar approximant, the second – with /w/ - voiced, unaspirated labiodental-velar approximant (Chambers 1998: 25). However, nowadays these pairs are homophones for most Canadians. Chambers agues that this can be explained by the fact that the phoneme /hw/ occurs only initially. He writes: “it is only preaspirate and the only (partly) devoiced approximant” (Chambers 1998: 25). Therefore, from the phonological viewpoint, the phoneme /hw/ appears odd in English and it is disappearing, especially in the last few decades. There are social and linguistic consequences for this change.

Fugure 12 illustrates a change of /w/ in progress. The diagonal thrust shows incremental increases in the use of a phoneme /w/ instead of /hw/ from older to younger people. The development has three stages: initial stasis, rapide rise, and tailing off. The first stage is the most static. We can assume that it was a time when /wh/ was quite stable and more frequent. Nevertheless, this stage seems to be disrupted by the first shaking of change. The people under 60 tend to merge the phonemes /hw/ and /w/ into the latter one. The trajectory of the change rises fast. It takes about 10 percent of the population every ten years. In the tailing off position the change is almost stable again. About 90,6 percent of teenagers do not use /wh/ variant at all.

Chambers (2002: 362) explains the gradualness of the graph by the fact that “in the initial stage the amount of variation was already high (roughly, 40/60 for the two variants) so that the acceleration of the change towards completion had only a short distance to go”.

4. Age and variations

Class and sex differences in a community can be marked by language variation. Nevertheless, language variation can also betoken instability and change. Boberg (2005: 141) concluded in his study of the Canadian Shift that “... age does have a significant effect on the articulation of the short vowels of Montréal English, and that this effect is independent of any effect of sex, ethnicity, or education.” Chambers proved this opinion in his investigation of the change of /wh/ and /w/ phonemes.


1“The First Germanic Consonant Shift, which applied in prehistoric times in Proto-Germanic to a number of the consonants inherited from PIE. This consonant shift is also familiarly known as Grimm's Law, because it received its fullest presentation in the work of the distinguished German linguist Jacob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm of fairy-tale fame... (Trask 1996: 224)

2 See Appendix A.


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Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel – Applied Linguistics
Canadian English



Title: The development and change of the phoneme /w/ in Canadian English