Which witch?

Today’s Bizarro:

Two phonological issues here: the initial consonants in witch and which, which are identical for the bulk of current English speakers (as a voiced approximant [w]), but are distinguished (as voiced [w] vs. the corresponding voiceless [ʍ]) for some; and the prosody associated with the questions

(a) Witch one stole your broom?  VS.  (b) Which one stole your broom?

The labio-velar approximants. From Wikipedia:

The voiceless labiovelar (labialized velar) approximant (traditionally called a voiceless labiovelar fricative) is a type of consonantal sound … The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨ʍ⟩ (a rotated lowercase letter ⟨w⟩) or ⟨w̥⟩.

[ʍ] is generally called a “fricative” for historical reasons, but in English, … it is a voiceless approximant, equivalent to [w̥] or [hw̥].

[ʍ] is frequently accompanied by a distinct h-like breathiness, which is why the difference between the voiced and voiceless phonemes (for those that have the distinction) is often transcribed as /w/ vs. /hw/.

For speakers who have it, the phonemic distinction correlates very closely to the spelling distinction between W and WH. Exceptions: WHO has /h/, and for most people with the distinction, WHOA nevertheless has /w/.

A few observations on the variants:

the main reservoirs of /hw/ use these days are the American Southeast and Irish and Scottish English

for General American and New Zealand English, only some speakers maintain the distinction

/hw/ is often prescribed for theatrical use, both in the US and the UK

the phonemic distinction tends to be leveled (in favor of [w]) in positions with little sentence accent (as in everywhere)

[hw̥] is sometimes used for emphatic pronunciations of /w/: You WITCH!

Question prosody.The cartoon works ok up to the point where you actually try to pronounce the relevant sentences. Sentence (a) above (Witch one stole your broom? ‘Did witch one steal your broom?’) is a yes-no question; consequently, its normal prosody has rising final intonation.

But sentence (b) (Which one stole your broom?) is an information (or WH question), and these have falling final intonation..

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Don Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

3 Responses to “Which witch?”

  1. Stephen Anderson Says:

    I have this contrast (early years in Madison WI, this feature not erased by subsequent adolescent years in Florida), and I have [w̥] in whoa. I have virtually never found a student in a linguistics class in 45 years of teaching who had any idea what I meant. When I came to Yale I was told about an all-female singing group that’s the counterpart to the W(h)iffenpoofs, called “Whim ‘n’ Rhythm.” I completely missed the joke.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Illinois and Ohio State are both close enough to the border South that I’d get some students there who had the contrast (as I do), so the rest of the students couldn’t stick to their theory that I was just making this stuff up to persecute them. Turns out that those without the contrast had detected the phonetic feature but just put it down to idiosyncrasies of particular speakers; the idea that it could convey meaning was startling. So that led to a lesson on phonemic hearing.

  2. Joseph F Foster Says:

    I have the /w/ ~ /hw/ contrast also, and everywhere, including in everywhere. But then I grew up in Arkansas and am 72 years old.

    Cincinnati students in the early 70’s many of them still had it, but we got a fair bunch of New Jersey students back then and they tended not to have it. Bby the late ’80s most of the Cincinnati students thought I was making it up and some even accused me of using a “spelling pronunciation” — which I viewed with modified pleasure because at least they had learned what a spelling pronunciation is!

    Re information / WH questions, one note. In much of the South, these are considered a little abrupt and if children use them with adults, plain rude. They normally have a rising intonation at the end too, though not as much as Y/N questions. That demanded my full attention back in Spring 1966 at U of Illinois when I was taking a course in EFL from Kay Aston and it included a good deal of practice teaching. We were supposed to teach the information question in the Midwestern form, with 23l intonation — since of course that’s what the many foreign students would mostly hear. But I had to be really alert when teaching a class or tutoring an individual so as not to slip back into the Southern pattern.

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