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The history of "wh": a microaggression

I love puns. My ninth grade classmates can attest to this, for I would begin each day with my corniest new discovery. Without fail, my jokes would set off a chorus of groans. Today I have a groaner to share with you: What did the grape say when the elephant sat on it? Nothing, but it let out a little wine.

I never told this particular pun to my friends, because it doesn’t quite work in my part of Tennessee. There, “wine” and “whine” have distinct pronunciations. We say “wine” just as you might, but when we whine we /hwine/. There’s an /h/ sound before the /w/. You might think our way of saying /hw/ is backwards since the word starts out “wh,” and you’d be right. But /hwine/ is actually the traditional pronunciation. In fact, the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for “whine” gives /hwine/ first and the newer /wine/ form second. This pattern carries through most “wh”-words. For “which,” Webster gives /hwich/. For “where,” it gives /hwer/.

I can’t tell you why the pronunciation and spelling are flipped, but I can say that the sound came first. It made its way to Old English through the Gothic letter hwair. At the time, it was written in English as “hw” — just as you would expect. Somehow, the spelling flipped to “wh” in Middle English, and we’ve kept the inverted form ever since.

The pronunciation shift from /hw/ to /w/ — causing “whine” to sound like “wine” — is a newer development. Linguists have appropriately dubbed it the “wine-whine merger,” and it may have started in thirteenth-century England. For half a millenium, the merger was shunned as a mark of low education. By the late 1700s, however, the /w/ pronunciation had caught on, and the merger is complete in most states today. William Labov writes in The Atlas of North American English, published in 2006, that only 17 percent of speakers preserve the /hw/ sound, most of them from a band that runs across the Southeast.

There is a town in that band that I call home, so I say my “wh”-words in the traditional way. I never thought twice about it before coming to New Jersey. Here, my peers make a spectacle of it. “Say Cool Whip,” they’ll tell me, in reference to the Family Guy gag in which one character pokes fun at another for his /hw/ pronunciations. I’ll say “Cool Whip.” They’ll repeat it back to me with exaggerated emphasis on the /h/. I’ve been pulled into this conversation several times now, and each time I grow a bit more self-conscious. Very few people like to have their speech mocked.

Now, I am sure the others never mean their offense. Therefore, I will play along and let them have their laugh. You wouldn’t know it from my columns, but I avoid confrontation when I can. Besides, this is not very important to me. I am a male and I am white, so I get less than my fair share of discrimination. I am ashamed to say that I have complained when I have had such fortune, but I must confess that I did. A friend of mine whom I quite like had put me through the “Cool Whip” routine, so I waited awhile and texted her this: “Making fun of regional speech is a microaggression.”

Again, I am ashamed of that text. But I learned a lot from her response. “Better put that on TM,” she said, referring to the Tiger Microaggressions page notorious for posting inoffensive “aggressions.” There came no apology or retraction. She really did not understand that she had caused any offense, even after I had plainly told her so. That is fine with me, and I don’t blame her one bit. If I were her, I am afraid I would not have understood either.

I mean it when I say I am afraid. I am afraid that I have spent eighteen years not understanding when I have said something offensive. I am afraid that I have unwittingly hurt the feelings of people so accustomed to microaggression that they did not bother to speak up. I am afraid that I would not have taken those people seriously if they had made a stand. And I am afraid I will do it all again. I am afraid because microaggressions aren’t harmless — there’s research to show that they cause anxiety and binge drinking among the minority students who are targeted.

To become more aware of my own shortcomings is a debt I owe to others, so please send me a message if I have ever hurt your feelings. I will do what I can to make it up to you. In the meantime, I ask that my readers try doing the same. You might be causing people offense without intending to. Understanding how others feel is hard for those of us who do not suffer discrimination often, but with a little conscious effort, we can start correcting our mistakes.

Newby Parton is a freshman from McMinnville, Tenn. He can be reached at

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