how to describe the "hw" sound
July 13, 2012 12:15 PM   Subscribe

How could I describe in a non-technical way how certain English-speakers maintain a distinction between the "w" and "wh" sound? A certain amount of technical description could help. Its for a character in a story. For example: "The beginning of his 'what' still comes from deep within his throat." I don't know if that's technically true and it sounds awesomely terrible but something like that.

For reference, I mean this sound:

found across the US but now largely in the Southeast, as you see here:
posted by pynchonesque to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you tried just describing the pronunciation of the "wh" as "breathy"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:17 PM on July 13, 2012

Once of them is vocalized and the other isn't.
posted by slkinsey at 12:26 PM on July 13, 2012

Could you just say that he pronounced the two sounds differently? "When he says 'what,' you can hear the H." Hmm. Not really any less terrible. But honestly I would have no idea what you were talking about with "from deep within his throat."
posted by mskyle at 12:30 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

i would say that the people who make the "h" sound "aspirate" their "wh"es.
posted by brainmouse at 12:32 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding "aspirate".
posted by Specklet at 12:34 PM on July 13, 2012

Something like this I'm guessing you're trying to describe? /w/ is a voiced labial-velar approximant while /ʍ/ is a voiceless labial-velar fricative, so yeah, describing it as more aspirated, more breathy, or more emphasised might be a good way to go about it.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 12:43 PM on July 13, 2012

"Unlike those who pronounce 'which' exactly like 'witch,' he would would pronounce [vocalize, aspirate] the 'h' sound before the 'w' sound in words that started with 'wh.'"
posted by John Cohen at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Moby Dick sort of addressed this with a quote from English writer and geographer Richard Hakluyt (and about whales of course):
"While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what
name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue leaving out, through
ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh the signification of
the word, you deliver that which is not true." --HACKLUYT

"WHALE.... Sw. and Dan. HVAL. This animal is named from roundness or
rolling; for in Dan. HVALT is arched or vaulted." --WEBSTER'S DICTIONARY
All that lost meaning when you drop the H and pronounce it "wale"!

I guess in this instance you could say something like "Protagonist believed the 'H' in 'which' almost alone made up the significance of the word. Certainly the pronunciation."
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:00 PM on July 13, 2012

Is this a character attribute in fiction writing?

Why not just say, "She had a precise Southern drawl that made her sound like a classic film star despite her humble background." ?

The specific "wh" sound is way too complicated to explain unless it's the final clue in a murder mystery or something. In which case you should devote several paragraphs to explaining what it is, so the reader will understand and remember it.
posted by Sara C. at 1:01 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've seen it indicated by writing hw instead of wh.
posted by bq at 1:28 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do this and people mock the fuck out of me. My husband (a Ph. D in linguistics) says that the correct description of "hwite" pronunciation is a "voiceless glide" but people also call it "aspirated" because without voicing the "w" you can hear the aspiration.

People have told me that my pronunciation is "old fashioned" and "BBC" (I have always lived in the US).
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:35 PM on July 13, 2012

For anyone who is not a linguist and wants an example of the phenomenon.
posted by milqman at 2:02 PM on July 13, 2012

Honestly, I don't pronounce either of them differently, so I'd be confused.... my "what" sounds like "wut" and "who" sounds like "hoo" (no discernible w at all). I think I understand where your guy is coming from.

However, I think I have an idea of what you're talking about - I've noticed some characters (and so far they've all been written characters, never real people I've met) have that weird breathy wh. Too emulate that I do a breathy "huu" before the word. "huuwhat? huuwhere?" etc. Because I think that's what's happening - the h is coming before the w.... for what you want it should read more "hwat" not "what"
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2012

I grew up in the Southeast with teachers who insisted we pronounce them differently. John Cohen's description is exactly how we were taught to pronounce 'wh-'.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:58 PM on July 13, 2012

I can't help you, but this scene from Hot Rod came to mind...
posted by tacodave at 3:38 PM on July 13, 2012

I'm from the South East US where we make a distinction between w and wh, but wh is a voiceless w sound, IPA [ʍ], not a [hw] sequence. (The Wikipedia article you linked to mentions this.) Voiced consonants are pronounced with your vocal cords vibrating as you say them, like they do when you say vowels. You pronounce voiceless consonants without the simultaneous vibration. The distinction is the same as one between z and s, v and f, and j and ch. The z, v and j sounds are voiced and the s, f and ch sounds aren't. Another way to describe this is that with a voiced consonant–vowel sequence, your voice box starts vibrating while you saying the consonant, with a voiceless consonant it only starts with the vowel.

You might look for standard descriptions of "voicing" that try to explain the concept to beginners, and just apply that to a w sound.

If you just want to describe what it sounds like, you could try something like this: "(lighter and) different from a w the way an f is different from a v, but still liquid like a w or an oo" (and without the hiss of an f), or just "lighter than a w".

Your description "The beginning of his 'what' still comes from deep within his throat" and Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth's description of "that weird breathy wh" are descriptions of a [hw] sound. This sounds foreign to me, like a Spanish speaker trying to emulate a wh sound by pronouncing it like the beginning of juego (which starts with a genuine [hw] sequence — [h] plus a diphthong that that starts with [w]). It's a close enough approximation, but it comes across as accented.
posted by nangar at 4:50 PM on July 13, 2012

If you want it to be understood by non-technical people, I think you should mention the H explicitly in your description, for example: When he says "what" he pronounces the "H"; he says it with a hard "H"; you can hear the "H" - something like that.

I've read all the comments in this thread and most of the technical terms (aspirate, vocalized, voiceless labial-velar fricative, glide) are not words in my common usage and did not make sense to me. Nor did your "deep within his throat" - I kept trying to pronounce "what" from deep within my throat and to me that sounds like the plain "W"; when you add the "H" the sound comes from the lips and cheeks, like whistling. The only way I can get it deep within my throat is to pronounce the vowel with a really deep voice and make it sound like "ahh", along the lines of the parodies of Greta Garbo's "I waant to be alone" (though I looked up the real clip and it doesn't sound at all like that).

I wouldn't say that Stewie's Cool Hwhip comes from deep within his throat - that's all in the lips.
posted by CathyG at 6:39 PM on July 13, 2012

For anyone who is not a linguist and wants an example of the phenomenon.

A perhaps slightly more authentic example: James Burke saying "meanhwile" (at 7:00 in the link).

posted by stebulus at 7:04 PM on July 13, 2012

People have told me that my pronunciation is "old fashioned" and "BBC" (I have always lived in the US).

This is called a Transatlantic (or Mid-Atlantic) accent, which is how Stewie from Family Guy speaks. So you could just mention that the character speaks with such an accent, and readers would understand.
posted by deanc at 9:23 AM on July 14, 2012

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