We are frequently asked about the difference between the phonograms w and wh and how to help students know when to use each one. Most American English dialects will pronounce these two phonograms the same because the sounds have merged together. However, there are some dialects where there will be a subtle difference in pronunciation.
The Different Pronunciations of WH
Speakers may pronounce the phonogram wh in three different ways:
- The phonogram wh may be pronounced exactly like the /w/ sound.
- The phonogram wh may be pronounced with a release of air before the onset of speech. Dictionaries use voiceless /ʍ/ transcription to represent this sound.
- Some speakers produce the /h/ sound before the /w/ sound, and this is represented as /hw/ in phonetic transcription seen in dictionaries.
How Do You Pronounce These Words?
The Differences with Words like Who
The words whole, who, and whose are unusual and don't follow the usual sound of the phonogram wh. Most speakers pronounce these words with an /h/ sound at the beginning. While they are pronouncing the /h/ sound, their lips are changing shape to say the next sound. In the word who, speakers' lips begin to round for the /o/ sound even as they are saying the /h/ sound. Interestingly, some people may form their mouths as if they were saying the unvoiced /wh/ (or /hw/), even though the /w/ sound has dropped out.
Historically these words were pronounced like other wh-words; however, their pronunciation has changed over time.