Why does the word “answer” have a silent “w”?

This took me a fair bit of googling, but I do think I’ve got it.

First off, thank you, everyone, for saying why the word’s spelling has a “w” in it - it used to be pronounced, then got dropped, et cetera. That’s only half the answer, though: there’s also the question of why the letter is silent.

Sound changes in English can always be attributed to rules in sound change. There are some fuzzy bits where sounds are added or shifted because speakers think it makes more sense that way, but 98% of the time a silent letter can be explained via regular sound change rules.

For example, every “g” and “k” before an “n” at the start of a word was lost in most varieties of English. This is why we have “gnome” and “know” and “gnash” and “knife”: the initial consonants really did use to be pronounced, but were lost due to this regular sound change, though they hung around in the word’s spelling.

So you’d expect there to be a regular sound change deleting the “w” in “answer”. This would be completely different from the change that deleted the “w” before an “r” in words like “wry” or “wrong”, since the “w” in “answer” is separated from the “r” by the “e”.

There are two other deleted-“w”-after-an-“s”-words I can immediately think of: “sword” and “sister” (sweoster in Old English). Would such a sound change rule explain these as well?

This took me a terribly long time to find - oh, the things one does for strangers on the internet - but Google Books coughed up an excerpt from The Inside Story on English Spelling by Paquita Boston, which says that this is a case of consonant cluster simplification. In less technical terms, this means that a group of sounds didn’t like being together and so some of them either merged with their neighbours or left entirely.

Quotation from here.

This change took awhile to catch on, however - especially in America. According to H. L. Mencken’s The American Language,

…the colonists seem to have resisted valiantly that tendency to slide over them which arose in England after the Restoration. Franklin, in 1768, still retained the sound of l in such words as would and should, a usage not met with in England after the year 1700. In the same way, according to Menner, the w in sword was sounded in America “for some time after Englishmen had abandoned it”.

As for “sister”? This confused me at first, but it appears that it was influenced by or even merged with Old Norse syster, which knocked the “w” out independently of sound changes.

So to answer your question, the “w” was dropped because it was awkward to say and dropping it made pronunciation easier. The sound change involved was simply simplifying a consonant cluster.

This information was taken from Quora. Click here to view the original post.

Have you ever thought why we never pronounce "w" in "answer"? Was this explanation helpful?

#Culture #History #language #Quora


What are your thoughts on this subject?
I'd like to mention that sometimes the w may be used as a double-u. In Louisiana, there is a river called the Ouachita River (Oo-ah-shi-taw). Note: rapidly pronouncing the Oo-ah yields a sound quite similar to Wah. In Oklahoma and Wyoming, there are references to Washita, a river, a county, and a city (Wah-shi-taw) They end up all being pronounced similarly except some Oklahomans pronounce the "i" as a long "e". I once saw (years ago) an educational program involving proposed Welsh usages of "w". The words, good, look, and book, could be spelled gwd, lwk, and bwk. In these cases, you must resist the temptation to use the "w", i.e. double-u as a whoosh sound. (Do you remember elementary school classes teaching you the vowels as "a-e-i-o-u" and Sometimes "w" and "y". It leaks out that sometimes "w" is actually used as a double-u. Why? Oh, "why" is a beautiful word,
Mar 28, 2019 8:18AM
Lynne Cage
Interesting thnx We do have a complex language 🧐
Dec 30, 2022 2:00AM
Jaimi McEntire
biljines, Of course, that river comes from the Ouachita mountains in Arkansas. :)
Jun 19, 2022 12:00PM
Doris Dallaire
Really interesting. English is a complex language.
Apr 16, 2022 6:28PM
I pronounce the "w" in "answer".
Mar 21, 2022 9:23AM
Rajendra Prasad Vasagiri
Very interesting. Thank you. The w in 'sword' is silent, but the w in 'sworn' is not silent though the places of articulation of the sounds in the two words are the same. What could be the reason?
Jan 7, 2022 6:12AM
Brian Watson
A Yank once asked a friend of mine in York for directions to Kaneresboruff! He meant Knaresborough.🤣
Dec 21, 2021 3:51AM
garrett scott
If this is interesting to you I would recommend something like Canterbury tales in the original middle English to get an impression of how we have changed through the centuries. Remember that standardized spelling has only been standardized for around 200 years.
Dec 10, 2021 9:08PM
Donald McBurney
just a comment on the word sword.there is also the word sward where the w is pronounced.
Nov 20, 2021 2:28PM
Raymond Cardona
That was very interested thanks for the insight Bonnie
Nov 9, 2021 4:24PM
Trevor Craddy
Really interesting. Language evolves, it always has and always will. One has only to look at the differences between English English and American English to see this in relatively modern times. Plus, it seems to be changing even more rapidly today with many words being spelt as they sound. One can almost have a written and fully understandable conversation in emojis. Sad that we're losing so many wonderful words though.
May 27, 2020 12:42AM
Janice Mastin-Kamps
Interesting-- but you do hear a hint of that "w" in sward. It sounds a little like sword. Maybe our common-sense ancestors wanted to make clear whether one was falling on the sward, rather than the sword.
Mar 22, 2020 10:07AM
Louis Michael Durocher,, ‘Tis “wherefore art thou?” you mayhap be meaning?
Feb 1, 2020 9:06PM
Micki Horton
Very interesting. It's nice to know English spelling once had an actual purpose.
Sep 6, 2019 4:59AM
Louis Michael Durocher,
Actually, the letters,"W" is from the middle English...Such as : as it were..and also many old English terms...Where for art thou,?..anyway good research and explanation...for once..
Jul 9, 2019 11:37PM
David Holmes
Nancy Maihoff, Some things are best left alone. I have friends who learned English as a second language and manage just fine. Other languages have eccentricities as well. We pronounced as V, V pronounced as Far for example.
Jun 15, 2019 4:41PM

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