December 30, 2006

Cool Hwip: the culture of a cluster

Family Guy is contending with The Simpsons as a source of materials for linguistics instruction. Last time the subject was uptalk ("Satirical cartoon uptalk is not HRT either") -- this time it's [h] before semivowels:

The classic reference on this topic is Raven McDavid Jr. and Virginia Glen McDavid, "H before Semivowels in the Eastern United States", Language 28(1) 41-62 (1952):

Although the pronunciation of /h-/ before vowels does not constitute a social shibboleth in the United States, there is evidence that the presence or absence of /h-/ in words like whip and humor is often considered a test of social acceptability. Thus when Thomas Pyles recently remarked that in his dialect (of Frederick, Maryland) the cluster /hw-/ does not occur, despite the efforts of well-meaning schoolteachers to impose it on generations of students, a reader immediately commented that nowhere had she observed a person of true culture who did not possess that cluster. Such responses are not confined to laymen. T. R. Lounsbury and William Dwight Whitney, and more recently C. K. Thomas and A. G. Kennedy, have insisted that there is a social stigma attached to those who do not pronounce /h-/ in words of these types. H. L. Mencken, on the other hand, considers the pronunciation of /h-/ in whip etc. an affectation.

I'm with Thomas Pyles and H. L. Mencken on this one -- "the baby whales" and "the baby wails" are homophonous in my speech. And at least some of Family Guy's target demographic is way beyond Mencken, considering [hw-] not affected but just plain hweird.

Here's McDavid & McDavid's hypothesis about the history:

By the time of the American Revolution neither the restoration of /h-/ in humor as a spelling-pronunciation nor the simplification of /hw-/ to /w-/ had been carried out in the cultured speech of southern England. Consequently it is easy to understand both the overwhelming preference of American speakers for humor with /j-/, and the fact that the areas with /w-/ in whip, wheelbarrow, whetstone, and whinny center around the ports, where contact with England was longest maintained by the mercantile class.

A (nonlinguist) guest brought /hw-/ up at dinner last night, and responses around the table made it clear that plenty of Americans still preserve this feature, hweird as it may sound to some.

[Hat tip: Vishy Venugopalan]

[For more on this, see Roger Shuy's post "Wut? Wen? Wich?", 9/17/2006.]

[Update -- Tiago Tresoldi writes:

a great post, but the video was cut and people who did not watch the show are probably not getting the "you are eating hair": in fact, Meg (the sister) had put some of her hair inside the pie. That is why Stewie (the baby) is eating "hair" and not "air".

The beginning is available here:


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 30, 2006 12:57 PM