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 its 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.”
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.
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