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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

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What are your thoughts on this subject?
51 Comments
biljines
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,
6
Mar 28, 2019 8:18AM
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.
1
May 27, 2020 12:42AM
Janice Mastin-Kamps
Interesting-- but you do hear a hint of that "w" in sward. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/pronunciation/english/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.
2
Mar 22, 2020 10:07AM
bbishop
Louis Michael Durocher,, ‘Tis “wherefore art thou?” you mayhap be meaning?
0
Feb 1, 2020 9:06PM
Micki Horton
Very interesting. It's nice to know English spelling once had an actual purpose.
1
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..
1
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.
0
Jun 15, 2019 4:41PM
Clifford Cash
I have just enough language knowledge to be dangerous. The letter W in German is pronounced as a V sound. My guess is the that the word answer derived more from the Germanic language pattern than the romantic.
1
Mar 25, 2019 4:22PM
Sandra Sears
what about the ph in Elephant...this debate could go on & On !But very good to read!
1
Mar 21, 2019 4:50PM
Richard Perkins
But do you pronounce the p in raspberry?
0
Mar 19, 2019 10:02AM
Bobbie May
Some people still pronounce the t in often . I remember a Shakespeare quote which went “full many a time and oft”.
0
Mar 15, 2019 5:45PM
Don Racette
lxixwithu Good thoughts.
0
Mar 1, 2019 10:59PM
lxixwithu
What about the "T" in "often"? It's pronounced like the "P" in "Pneumonia."
0
Feb 24, 2019 4:21PM
Cristy Galvez Cavestany
Language change is a new topic for me, must give it a little more time to read about it. Thank you.
0
Feb 15, 2019 7:07PM
Paul Bison
Sorry, explanation
0
Feb 9, 2019 3:01AM

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