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?
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:
To give the deaf child exposure to the full inventory of English phonemes.
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).