When I was a young man in the Air Force I heard a guy talking with a friend about Wales. This caught my attention, since I had an interest in Wales and the Welsh language. But when I tried to join in his conversation all I got from him was a puzzled look. We went back and forth for a while until I finally realized that he hadn't been talking about Wales at all. He had been talking about whales!
But I had distinctly heard him say Wales. So I attempted to clarify.
"You mean whales," I said.
"Wales? But that's the country Wales, not whales. You're talking about whales."
"Yes, like I said, Wales."
Now I was really confused. He meant "whales" but was saying "Wales." We went around in circles like this for a couple minutes until it suddenly dawned on me. He did mean "whales", but pronounced it with a W instead of a WH. For him, "Wales" and "whales" were pronounced exactly alike!
This was quite a revelation to me, and from that moment I began paying attention to how other people pronounced "WH".
My roommate was from Pennsylvania, and he, too, pronounced W and WH exactly the same. Things "overwelmed" him, and when he was tired he was "wipped." When people complained, they were "wining".
I then thought back to a joke that I had once heard when I was very young. It was based on a pun, using the words "which" and "witch." I remember thinking to myself that it was a pretty lousy pun, since the words only rhymed but were not identical. Now I realized that for many people it was really was a pun. "Which" and "witch" were for them true homonyms.
For me they are not homonyms. WH is pronounced as if it were spelled "HW", whereas W is simply a W. In other words, WH is aspirated, and W is not. "Which" and "witch" are as different to me as the words "hill" and "ill".
The more people I asked about this curious little detail, the more I realized that I was in a minority. It was quite a challenge to find anyone else who made the distinction between WH and W. In my frustration I talked with a former college roommate from Iowa and asked him the same question. Is there a difference between WH and W? "Of course," he replied. "When we were in grade school our teacher told us to hold our hands in front of our mouths when we pronounced the WH. With the WH we should feel a little puff of air." I then tried it myself. His teacher was right.
About ten years later I was an ESL teacher in California. One of my colleagues prepared a lesson in which he taught the difference between WH and W to his students. "W is voiced," he explained, "but WH is unvoiced." When I read his explanation I disagreed with him, saying that the difference was in aspiration, not voice. "Nonsense," he scoffed. "For WHERE you don't say 'Huh-wear'."
Well, neither do I. And I don't say "huh-ill" for "hill".
Some people I have interviewed concede the difference between WH and W, but admit that in ordinary speech they don't bother to make the distinction. By not making the distinction they are participating in an evolutionary process of language that eliminates minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are word pairs used to determine the lowest level of phoneme that can distinguish one word from another. "Ship/sheep" is a minimal pair, for example, demonstrating that the vowel difference in these two words is significant in English. In other languages, such as Spanish, this particular vowel difference is not significant; hence the stereotyped Spanish accent of pronouncing "ee" for short "i".
English spelling is ample proof of the fact that WH was originally meant to be distinguished from W. "Whales" and "Wales" are spelled differently; so are "whether/weather", "whither/wither", "whine/wine", "where/wear", "when/wen", "whee/we", and "whiz/wiz." (The last one is particularly amusing. I am sure there are people out there who actually think that "whiz" is an abbreviation of "wizard.") These words are spelled differently because they are meant to be pronounced differently. But with the passage of time languages tend to simplify themselves, grammatically and phonetically. English has lost the bulk of its original verb conjugations, and the orthography is cluttered with silent letters.
Now our generation is witnessing another simplification - the slow death of WH and all of its minimal pairs. With the loss of minimal pairs, the number of homonyms in the language increases. When homonyms increase, the language becomes ambiguous. Ambiguity is not a good thing. If you want a good example of a language where homonyms are out of control and ambiguity reigns supreme, take a look at Chinese.
Most people I have met in the last thirty years make no distinction whatsoever (or should I say watsoever?) between the WH and the W. Most speakers in the media blend their WH and W as well, relentlessly propagating their dialect from coast to coast. It appears to be an irresistible trend which (or witch) is pushing my brand of American English into a linguistic museum. My daughter, thank God, learned her pronunciation from me, and she will vicariously carry my WH/W minimal pairs well into the 21st century, long after I am dead and buried.
But in the meantime I am still around, proudly pronouncing all those minimal pairs just as they are spelled.
This little difference of dialect has for me developed into a pet peeve. I wince every time I hear a good healthy WH being lopped in half, reduced to an anemic W. The President lives in the White House, not the Wight House for crying out loud! And those things that turn around on your car are wheels, not weals! And you don't wet your appetite, you whet it! Who ever heard of a wet appetite?
Whenever I hear that slogan, "Save the whales," I feel like answering, "And save how they are pronounced, too!"
What do you think about this linguistic pet peeve that someone has?
I think it's totally stupid. That guy is totally wrong.