Middle English Dictionary Entry

wh- consonant clust.
Quotations: Show all Hide all

Entry Info

Definitions (Senses and Subsenses)

A consonant cluster used initially in well over 200 headwords, the great majority of which are derived from OE hw-, including some of the most common pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions in ME: e.g., whanne, what, whenne, whennes, wher, whether, whi, which, whider, who, whom, and whos; a few words not among the wh- headwords are also derived from OE hw-, either in whole or in part (e.g., wer-wette n. & houp n., houpen v.). Some twenty other words (including derivatives) are derived, or prob. derived, either in whole or in part, from ON hv- (ult. from the same Gmc. source as OE hw-): e.g., whelp n., whesen v., whete n., whethen adv. & conj., whin n.(1), whirl n., whirlen v., whirren v., wholve n., and wholved ppl. In addition, a few words are imitative in origin, with wh- used, prob. by analogy with other semantically similar words beginning with wh-, to suggest a human or animal sound: e.g., wharlare n., whewe n., whewen v., whinien v., whispen v., whissen v., whist interj. or v. impv., and whrinnien v. The wh- spelling already appears, though infrequently, in LOE as a variant of OE hw-. In ME it is used sporadically during the 12th cent., e.g., in Peterb.Chron., a gloss, and a few names; by the end of the century it is the regular spelling in Orm., from the NEM. The spelling becomes more frequent in the 13th cent., and widespread in the 14th cent. Alongside wh-, w- and the various q- spellings come to be used frequently, the former esp. in the SM and S, the latter esp. in the N and NM. Other spellings, with dialectal correlations based on the MED materials, are listed above in the form section; see, further, LALME 1.372-73, 2.189-94, and 4.80-81, as well as the separate entries for wh- words in vol. 4. In addition to its use as the reflex of OE hw- and ON hv-, wh- is often used as a backspelling for words with original w- or h-. The large number of wh- cross-references to w- words testifies to the pervasiveness of the former tendency; note also the following wh- headwords, which are derived, either in whole or in part, from MDu. or MLG words with initial w-: whip(pe n., whippen v., and derivatives, and whiting(e n. The latter tendency is usu. found before ō or ǒu (e.g., hol(e adj.(2), holi adj.(2), holli adv., hom n., hop n., hor adj., hord n.(2), hot(e adv., hou interrog. adv., hou conjunctive adv., houlen v.), but also occas. before other vowels and diphthongs (heil adj., herien v.(1), heu n.); note also the h- spellings in who pron., whos pron., who-so pron., and derivatives, as well as in which adj. and whider adv. and conj. The conclusion to be drawn from these spellings is that there was a simplification of the original cluster [hw] in some parts of the country, usu. to [w] but sometimes to [h]. By contrast, the pervasiveness of q- spellings (chiefly in the N, NM, and EAngl.) indicates that the cluster was not simplified in those areas, but retained the presumed pronunciation [xw], prob. represented already in OE by the Nhb. spellings chw-, chu-; a few other ME spellings also point to this lack of simplification (e.g., cu-, ch-, ku-). In such spellings the wh- cluster overlapped with the qu- cluster (from other sources), and in time spellings of the two clusters became nearly interchangeable; see, further, qu- cons. clust. passim.