wh- words

Most introductory CS classes devote some time to the topic of “wh-” words. Students learn that words like “when” may begin with handshape 4 or handshape 6

Phonemes as Contrastive Segments

Phonemes are all about contrast. These building blocks often have a partner that is produced similarly with one distinguishing feature. For example, /sss/ and /zzz/ are spoken nearly identically. However, /sss/ is produced without vocal fold vibration (or voicing) and /zzz/ is produced with vibration. This distinction is important for making different words. The distinction between /sss/ and /zzz/ allows us to recognize the difference between the words sip and zip or niece and knees

For some cuers of English, this distinction is also important in the case of /www/ and /ʍhwhw/. For them, these two phonemes serve as a point of contrast that build uniquely recognizable words like wine and whine. For them, this distinction is as important as the differences between /sss/ and /zzz/ or /kkk/ and /ggg/. 

To decide if you should cue this distinction, consider the following paires of words. Are these pairs (e.g., wack and whack) pronounced the same or differently? 

Handshape 6: /www Handshape 4: /ʍhwhw/
wack whack
wail whale
Wales whales
ware/ wear where
wares/ wears where’s
weather whether
way/ weigh whey
we’ll wheel
were whir
wet whet
wield wheeled
wig whig
wile while
wine whine
wire why’re
wise why’s
witch which
wither whither
woe whoa
word whirred
world whirled

If you pronounce the words in each pair differently, they should be cued differently. However, these consonants may have lost their distinction for you as they have for most speakers and cuers of English. In that case, they are homophones and are pronounced the same. For these cuers, the pairs are cued identically. Likely, both with handshape 6. 

Not-So-Good Reasons to Use Handshape 4

Some cuers, despite the pronouncing these words identically, opt to incorporate a distinction and begin pronouncing and cueing the words differently. There are two frequent rationales: 

  1. To give the deaf child exposure to the full inventory of English phonemes.
  2. To more closely resemble spelling to give the deaf student an advantage for reading and spelling.

It’s admirable to give your child the most you can. However, providing access to a language building block that is disappearing is not necessary. Phonemes merge. Dialects change. Preserving a disappearing phoneme in the dialects of deaf cuers just creates an artificial dialect. Children should be exposed to actual English, not some idealized form. 

Sometimes instructors encourage parents to cue “wh-” words with /ʍhwhw/ to help later with phonics instruction. Again, this is not necessary. Written language is supposed to be based on how we pronounce words, not the other way around. While the relationship between spoken/cued English and written English is sometimes tenuous, it is not advised that we start changing how we pronounce words to match spelling. Say this sentence exactly as it’s spelled: Talking like we write would become totally weird.

Some “wh” Words Never Start with  /ʍhwhw

It’s also important to remember that some words are never cued with /ʍhwhw/ (handshape 4) or /www/ (handhsape 6). The words who, whole, whore, and wholesome all begin with /hhh/ (handhsape 3). 

See Also

 

when

  • /ʍɛˈn/
  • /hwehˈn/
  • /hwěˈn/
  • 4c4s

when

  • /wɛˈn/
  • /wehˈn/
  • /wěˈn/
  • 6c4s

sip

  • /sɪˈp/
  • /siˈp/
  • /sĭˈp/
  • 3t1s

zip

  • /zɪˈp/
  • /ziˈp/
  • /zĭˈp/
  • 2t1s

niece

  • /niˈs/
  • /neeˈs/
  • /nēˈs/
  • 4m3s

knees

  • /niˈz/
  • /neeˈz/
  • /nēˈz/
  • 4m2s

wine

  • /wɑɪˈn/
  • /wieˈn/
  • /wīˈn/
  • 6s5t4s

whine

  • /ʍɑɪˈn/
  • /hwieˈn/
  • /hwīˈn/
  • 4s5t4s

wack

  • /wæˈk/
  • /waˈk/
  • /wăˈk/
  • 6t2s

whack

  • /ʍæˈk/
  • /hwaˈk/
  • /hwăˈk/
  • 4t2s

wack

  • /wæˈk/
  • /waˈk/
  • /wăˈk/
  • 6t2s

whack

  • /ʍæˈk/
  • /hwaˈk/
  • /hwăˈk/
  • 4t2s

wail

  • /weɪˈl/
  • /wayˈl/
  • /wāˈl/
  • 6c5t6s

whale

  • /ʍeɪˈl/
  • /hwayˈl/
  • /hwāˈl/
  • 4c5t6s

Wales

  • /weɪˈlz/
  • /wayˈlz/
  • /wāˈlz/
  • 6c5t6s2s

whales

  • /ʍeɪˈlz/
  • /hwayˈlz/
  • /hwāˈlz/
  • 4c5t6s2s

ware

  • /wɛˈr/
  • /wehˈr/
  • /wěˈr/
  • 6c3s

wear

  • /wɛˈr/
  • /wehˈr/
  • /wěˈr/
  • 6c3s

where

  • /ʍɛˈr/
  • /hwehˈr/
  • /hwěˈr/
  • 4c3s

wares

  • /wɛˈrz/
  • /wehˈrz/
  • /wěˈrz/
  • 6c3s2s

wears

  • /wɛˈrz/
  • /wehˈrz/
  • /wěˈrz/
  • 6c3s2s

where’s

  • /ʍɛˈrz/
  • /hwehˈrz/
  • /hwěˈrz/
  • 4c3s2s

weather

  • /wɛˈðɚ/
  • /wehˈtHur/
  • /wěˈt͟hûr/
  • 6c2m

whether

  • /ʍɛˈðɚ/
  • /hwehˈtHur/
  • /hwěˈt͟hûr/
  • 4c2m

way

  • /weɪˈ/
  • /wayˈ/
  • /wāˈ/
  • 6c5t

weigh

  • /weɪˈ/
  • /wayˈ/
  • /wāˈ/
  • 6c5t

whey

  • /ʍeɪˈ/
  • /hwayˈ/
  • /hwāˈ/
  • 4c5t

we’ll

  • /wiˈl/
  • /weeˈl/
  • /wēˈl/
  • 6m6s

wheel

  • /ʍiˈl/
  • /hweeˈl/
  • /hwēˈl/
  • 4m6s

were

  • /wɚ/
  • /wur/
  • /wûr/
  • 6m

whir

  • /ʍɚˈ/
  • /hwurˈ/
  • /hwûrˈ/
  • 4m

wet

  • /wɛˈt/
  • /wehˈt/
  • /wěˈt/
  • 6c5s

whet

  • /ʍɛˈt/
  • /hwehˈt/
  • /hwěˈt/
  • 4c5s

wield

  • /wiˈld/
  • /weeˈld/
  • /wēˈld/
  • 6m6s1s

wheeled

  • /ʍiˈld/
  • /hweeˈld/
  • /hwēˈld/
  • 4m6s1s

wig

  • /wɪˈg/
  • /wiˈg/
  • /wĭˈg/
  • 6t7s

whig

  • /ʍɪˈg/
  • /hwiˈg/
  • /hwĭˈg/
  • 4t7s

wile

  • /wɑɪˈl/
  • /wieˈl/
  • /wīˈl/
  • 6s5t6s

while

  • /ʍɑɪˈl/
  • /hwieˈl/
  • /hwīˈl/
  • 4s5t6s

wine

  • /wɑɪˈn/
  • /wieˈn/
  • /wīˈn/
  • 6s5t4s

whine

  • /ʍɑɪˈn/
  • /hwieˈn/
  • /hwīˈn/
  • 4s5t4s

wire

  • /wɑɪˈr/
  • /wieˈr/
  • /wīˈr/
  • 6s5t3s

why’re

  • /ʍɑɪˈɚ/
  • /hwieˈur/
  • /hwīˈûr/
  • 4s5t5m

wise

  • /wɑɪˈz/
  • /wieˈz/
  • /wīˈz/
  • 6s5t2s

why’s

  • /ʍɑɪˈz/
  • /hwieˈz/
  • /hwīˈz/
  • 4s5t2s

witch

  • /wɪˈʧ/
  • /wiˈch/
  • /wĭˈch/
  • 6t8s

which

  • /ʍɪˈʧ/
  • /hwiˈch/
  • /hwĭˈch/
  • 4t8s

wither

  • /wɪˈðɚ/
  • /wiˈtHur/
  • /wĭˈt͟hûr/
  • 6t2m

whither

  • /ʍɪˈðɚ/
  • /hwiˈtHur/
  • /hwĭˈt͟hûr/
  • 4t2m

woe

  • /woʊˈ/
  • /wohˈ/
  • /wōˈ/
  • 6sf

whoa

  • /ʍoʊˈ/
  • /hwohˈ/
  • /hwōˈ/
  • 4sf

word

  • /wɚˈd/
  • /wurˈd/
  • /wûrˈd/
  • 6m1s

whirred

  • /ʍɚˈd/
  • /hwurˈd/
  • /hwûrˈd/
  • 4m1s

world

  • /wɚˈld/
  • /wurˈld/
  • /wûrˈld/
  • 6m6s1s

whirled

  • /ʍɚˈld/
  • /hwurˈld/
  • /hwûrˈld/
  • 4m6s1s

who

  • /huˈ/
  • /hueˈ/
  • /ho͞oˈ/
  • 3c

whole

  • /hoʊˈl/
  • /hohˈl/
  • /hōˈl/
  • 3sf6s

whore

  • /hoˈr/
  • /hohˈr/
  • /hōˈr/
  • 3sf3s

wholesome

  • /hoʊˈlsəm/
  • /hohˈlsəm/
  • /hōˈlsəm/
  • 3sf6s3sd5s