Among the 427,000 things which can annoy me is waking at 3am and having really silly lines of thought banging about in the old brain box. It happened again this week, and among the junk, nonsense and non-sequential thoughts, one scrambled through the swamp to surface more vigorously than the others.
The mystery of Dr Who. Not the TV character, but the actual word “who”.
Why do we have this odd word in our language? And why is it pronounced “hoo”?
At the risk of giving Dr Who a slightly oriental flavour, should it have been pronounced “woo” or “whoo”? Or spelled “hwo”? Dr Hu?
See, this bit of space is called BushWhacked, not BushHacked. We say “why” not “hy”. We go “where”, not “here”. So, who decided to muck about with “who”?
As usual, a little research shows that modern people got it wrong. In Old English it was hwa, from proto-Germanic hwas. In other languages it appears as: Old Saxon hwe, Danish hvo, Swedish vem, Old Frisian hwa, Dutch wie, Old High German hwer, German wer, Gothic hvo.
Come to think of it, what a mongrel of a letter W can be. Some frarfly good English speakers do pronounced the H in words such as “what, where, when, why, whack” … BUT, they put the H before the W, so “when” become “hwen” even though it’s clearly wandered to the wrong bit of the word.
W should be banned. It’s not even a thing. It’s a “doubleU” and if there’s a mob of them, they’re called “double-ues”. Two of youse. How bogan. It should be doubleV.
Silly people decided to abbreviate the World Wide Web to WWW, but it takes three times as many syllables to say the abbreviation as it does to use its full name. Try it.
This nasty slippery letter crept into our language with William the Conqueror, until then known as William the Bastard. Guillaume le Bâtard seems to have swapped a G for a W somewhere over the English Channel.
Before that, we stuck with V, or in some places a rune character called Wynn.
Even then, W didn’t really catch on until the 1300s. Three hundred years later, it was still suspect with a German grammarian, Valentin Ickelshamer (I swear I’m not making this up) wrote: “Poor w is so infamous and unknown that many barely know either its name or its shape, not those who aspire to being Latinists, as they have no need of it, nor do the Germans, not even the schoolmasters, know what to do with it or how to call it; some call it we, others call it uu. The Swabians call it auwawau.
Oh. Wow. Wow. Most European languages just get by with V without suffering terminal tongue twisting. That’s why films always show German or Russian spies vondering vhy ze vater was so cold.
In their cheery little countries, Jody Whittaker, or Vittaker, will become the 13th Dr Voo. And this little corner of the Addy is called BushVacked.
There has been a great deal of very clever study on why the Germans, then the English needed to mangle our language with Ws.
I have read some of it. Understood very little. Especially when it’s explained in sentences such as this: “The sounds /w/ (spelled ⟨V⟩) and /b/ (spelled ⟨B⟩) of Classical Latin developed into a bilabial fricative /β/ between vowels in Early Medieval Latin. Therefore, ⟨V⟩ no longer adequately represented the labial-velar approximant sound /w/ of Germanic phonology.”
Got that? There’ll be questions later on. Gawd, I’m tired now.