Gene Weingarten's column in today's The Washington Post (already mentioned by Ben Zimmer on the American Dialect Society's mailing list), discusses his confusion about how to pronounce the word, "what." This reminded me of my first teaching experience with seventh graders in Akron, Ohio some fifty years ago. One of my students caught me before class and informed me that his mother told him that he should always pronounce this word with a puff of air on the "w" and that I, his English teacher, didn't follow that rule. What was I thinking of, anyway? Then he pulled out our Language Arts textbook and proved to me that his mother was absolutely right. I was totally off-base the way I talked.
This "nyah-nyah" technique is common among students who are always on
the alert for flaws, if not hypocrisy, in their teachers. But, as it
turns out, I had just finished a graduate school class in Dialect
Geography and I was ready for him. I told him that this would make a
good class project. I gave the class enough phonetics to help them
distinguish between the /w/ and /hw/ sounds in word initial
position, then gave them a list of words, including "what," "when," and
"which," and sent them home to do some fieldwork. They were to observe
and record the way their friends, relatives, and anyone else pronounced
these words. Even public figures speaking on the local radio station
were fair game. My young fieldworkers were to then count up the number
of times they heard their subjects say either /w/ or /hw/ and come back
to class with the results.
Together we discovered that /w/, as in "wut," won hands down over /hw/, as in "hwut." Even the mayor and many local clerics used it. Although Akron is in northern Ohio, where the Northern dialect might be expected, its settlement history (which we also studied briefly) puts it in the North Midland dialect area, where the findings of my students could be predicted.
But we didn't stop there. For those who found some /hw/ pronunciations, I asked them where these speakers grew up. In cases for which this information could be discovered, we found that they all came from areas where the Northern dialect was spoken. So I drew a rough isogloss on a map of the country, showing the Northern-Midland distinction. But even that wasn't all. Next I had them look at the title page of their textbook to discover where it was published. Boston. "And what dialect area might that be?" I asked them. They got the point.
We had some great discussions about the pronunciation of English in the US, leading us to examine other pronunciation and vocabulary variables. More important, I think, was that my young students learned, perhaps for the first time, that there are many acceptable ways to speak their language, one of which involves perfectly acceptable regional variation. You can imagine where this led us next. We didn't do much with that textbook, which was full of archaic grammatical commandments and false claims about usage. Instead, we did fieldwork about these topics, which got me into considerable hot water with the prinicpal.
As can be imagined, I didn't last very long as a junior high school English teacher. But I have a fond hope that at least some of my young students ended their school year with a very different view of how their language really works. And maybe they learned a little about research and history as well.
PS: Gene Weigarten claims that he pronounces "what" to rhyme with "squat." Hmm. I don't think I ever heard anyone say it that way and he couldn't seem to find anyone else to agree with him either. Personally, I still say my native "wut" with no embarrassment "wutsoever." And I hope my seventh grade students, now in their early sixties, still do too.