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, butof 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.
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.
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