When I was a schoolgirl, my mother demanded that we, children, pronounce “wh” words differently from “w” words. “Wh” words included, “what,” “when,” “why,” “where,” “whistle,” “white,” etcetera. She insisted that we blow a little air out when we pronounced these words, and that the “h” in the “wh” of these words indicated to do so. Why else would there be an “h”? Unfortunately, for my mother, it was a little too late for me. I had already been a student within the California school system, and like most Americans, we Californians ignored the “h”!
However, oddly enough, I have managed to somehow hold on to this breezy “wh” sound in one of these words, aforementioned. Why is that? And why did my mother speak like this? I Googled, “is “wh” pronounced differently from “w” and discovered the “wine-whine-merger.” Apparently, the Scotch-Irish, who had long ago emigrated to the southern region — before the United States was even formed — pronounced words beginning with “wh” differently from words beginning with just a “w.” My mother fits into this category. She was a descendant of these early American immigrants that had populated the South, and somehow, held on to this old linguistic habit of blowing air while pronouncing “wh” words.
Well, I lived in the South for twenty-nine years. I knew no one that used this “wh” sound. It seems to be an outdated way of speaking. Most of us just merge the two sounds into one plain-and-simple “w” sound. This amalgamation is called the “wine-whine-merger.”
American English is a living language, and it changes as we Americans mix, mingle, and migrate. Now, I will always remember where this little secret “wh” puff of air comes from in the beginning of “wh” words. Who knows? As a way of honoring my mother and my Scotch-Irish ancestors, I might even start using this “wh” sound again — breathing new life, so to speak, into this heirloom-like pronunciation. Let my Scotch-Irish spirits linger on!
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