84: 'Who,' 'what,' 'when,' and 'where': How do you pronounce words that begin with wh-?

Do you pronounce /h/ in the wh- spelling? Not usually.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy and this is our 84th episode.

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Portions of the U.S. where the wine-whine merger is not complete  [1]   View  Wikipedia reference page

Portions of the U.S. where the wine-whine merger is not complete[1]

View Wikipedia reference page

Today's topic is the pronunciation of the wh spelling, as in the words why, what and when.

Portions of the U.S. where the wine-whine merger is not complete[1]

I've been asked a number of times if the h sound needs to be represented in the pronunciation of the wh spelling. Is the word what, w-h-a-t, pronounced as what or hwhat? The short and simple answer is to pronounce the word as what, with no h sound. However, this is not a universal American pronunciation; some dialects of American English, spoken in the southeastern part of the United States, do say hwhat, but that pronunciation is significantly less common.

There is also the little issue of when the wh spelling is pronounced as an h sound, as in the words who and whole, w-h-o-l-e.

Most of you are already aware of these words, but I wanted to mention their pronunciation just in case some of you are trying to sneak a w sound into these words. When the wh is followed by either the long o sound or the oo sound, then the word is usually pronounced with an h sound, and only an h sound. This includes the words:


You should notice that the words whole, w-h-o-l-e, and hole, h-o-l-e, are pronounced exactly the same.

Most wh words (except those followed by the long o or oo sound) have lost the h portion of their pronunciation in American English. Listen to the following words:


It didn't used to be this way. The words wine, w-i-n-e, and whine w-h-i-n-e, had different pronunciations at one time. The fact that they have become homophones has created what is known as the wine-whine merger. There are actually quite a few words that have become homophones because of this merger. Listen to the following pairs:

where, wear
which, witch
whether, weather
whale, wale

Could you think of both words? If you couldn't, they are in the transcripts. I'll also include an image from Wikipedia that shows the area in the United States that the wine-whine merger has not happened.

Oh, and if you're wondering about England or Australia, their mergers are also complete or nearly complete. So if you're in those areas, you probably will not hear many people asking "hwhere something is" or "hwhat time something begins."

It certainly isn't wrong to add the h's into the wh words, but it is definitely a less common pronunciation.

If you want to learn more about the w sound in general, the new free w sound lesson is complete, and is up on Pronuncian. I'll link to it from this show's transcripts. If you're a subscriber, you can also take the quiz to help you identify if adjacent vowel sounds within words are separated by a w sound or a y sound. The lessons give you more information about the concept of linking vowels within words and why the w sound and y sound are important.

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[1]Author: Angr, Own work; base map is modified from Image:Map of USA with state names.svg; data from W. Labov, S. Ash & C. Boberg, The Atlas of North American English (Mouton de Gruyter, 2006), p. 50.