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The 23rd letter of the English alphabet is a bit of a wonder. The humble “w” is the only letter of the alphabet with a three-syllable name. It is also the only letter with a name that does not indicate its phonetic use. The complications of “w” are doublefold because of it’s name, ‘double u’ and its shape, ‘double v’. What’s going on here?

In English, /w/ typically reads as a voiced labio-velar approximate. In other words, “wa.” However, in other Germanic languages, /w/ reads like “v”. Think of the famous phrase by Swedish acting legend Greta Garbo, “I vant to be let alone.”

(If you enjoy this history, you’ll love to meet two extinct letters of the alphabet, right here.)

In Classical Latin, the /w/ sound was represented by the letter “v”. Through the years, the language shifted, the sound associated with the Latin “v” became a voiced bilabial fricative — like the “v” in “vampire.” Meanwhile, another sound was forming out of v, the /u/. At first glance “u” shouldn’t be part of our story, however its representation and relation to the sound /v/ in spelling give it an indirect and important role in shaping the letter “w”.

 To distinguish the sound of “w” from either “v” or the up and coming “u”, a double form of “u” was taken to represent the original Classical Latin “v”, written as ‘uu.’ Compound letters used to represent a phoneme are called a digraph. The earliest writing with the digraph “uu” dates to 8th Century writers of Old High German. This is a standard that came with the Normans into England after the invasion of 1066.

Fast forward to 1300. With the French-speaking Normans ruling England for a couple hundred years,the English language rapidly evolves from Old English or Anglo-Saxon into Middle English. Runes are replaced in writing by Latin letters. The orthographic rules set down for Brythographic (Celtic) languages, however, differ on the island from developments taking place in continental Europe. There the pronunciation of “w” shifts to /v/ in other Germanic languages. Even while letter forms become standardized across Europe thanks to the printing press, the pronunciation of the English “w” remains. Weird way to work with words, we wager.

187 Comments

  1. Y U NO PRONOUNCE? -  March 4, 2014 - 2:38 pm

    MIND BLOWN. Now…why do we not pronounce eleven onety one?

    Reply
  2. OCHIENG BRIAN OTIENO -  January 25, 2014 - 12:09 pm

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  3. Pagane -  December 11, 2013 - 9:38 pm

    You cannot give ‘vampire’ as an example. It is a Bulgarian word. The original spelling in Bulgarian is with ‘V’ in Cyrillic. That is why it is written with V in English.

    Reply
  4. Avettinee -  June 23, 2012 - 11:28 am

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  5. sherryyu -  June 9, 2012 - 2:56 pm

    will theis is a very good article here i stomploed oupon

    Reply
  6. James -  April 18, 2012 - 8:39 pm

    I don’t think voiced bilabial fricative ever existed in English….

    Reply
  7. talles -  April 11, 2012 - 1:09 pm

    m is an bilabial aspirant drew

    (damn, this thing doesnt have reply button)

    Reply
  8. ... -  April 10, 2012 - 7:26 pm

    ….vait vhat

    Reply
  9. sithembiso -  April 10, 2012 - 9:03 am

    i always knew there was a vald reoson behind the “w” thanks for the information, now i can explain with confidents to my my peers.

    Reply
  10. Puggle91 -  April 9, 2012 - 6:49 pm

    @ Mrs Dean Wormer on February 3, 2011 at 8:28 am

    I’m going to form a band called the Bilabial Fricatives. Who is with me?!

    … I could just imagine what the average Joe would think of that name… he he he.
    I mean – what else could be extrapolated from something with two lips and a bit of friction?

    Reply
  11. Cathleen -  March 28, 2012 - 6:45 am

    [v] is a voiced labiodental fricative. I’m a student of English linguistics and I can confirm that this is true. You can look this stuff up on wikipedia, too.

    Reply
  12. Michelle -  March 11, 2012 - 7:33 am

    Well, I just wanted to tell you that I write W(s) with double U(s) instead of double V(s).

    Reply
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