All my life, I assumed that whole is pronounced identically to hole, but today I found this resource, saying that wh digraph represents a separate sound [hw]:

"wh" represents a single sound, /hw/, which is different from the /h/ and /w/ sounds

“wh” is the “blowing out a candle sound” which I represent here as /hw/. If you blow out a candle as you normally would, you are pronouncing the /hw/ sound.

Further in the text the author says that the above applies to other words starting with "wh": (expectedly) who and whose, and (surprisingly) to what, where, when, for which in many dictionaries you can find transcription starting with /w/. The author explains that

[the above words] most phonics curricula now teach as beginning with a /h/ sound

Not only learners, but some allegedly native speakers say they don't see the difference. From one English language forum:

I am unaware of any dialect of English where whole and hole have different pronunciations.

My question to native English speakers (British and American), do you share the opinion about distinction between /hw/, /h/, and /w/?

  • 1
    At one time, "where" and "wear" were pronounced differently in UK, and perhaps some people still do. Even 50 years ago I remember my peers being ridiculed for saying "h-where". But I have never heard anyone pronounce "whole" like that. Sep 18, 2022 at 19:04
  • (old joke) Where was Jesus buried? In a wholly holy hole
    – James K
    Sep 19, 2022 at 7:39

3 Answers 3


Many words beginning "wh" traditionally began with the unvoiced labial approximant /ʍ/, as opposed to the voiced labial approximant /w/, so that "which" and "witch" were not homophones.

Most dialects of English have abandoned this distinction, and the words are homophones; but some Scottish accents, for example, retain the distinction, and some speakers of other varieties maintain it when speaking carefully (I have been told that I do so myself).

However, in every accent I've ever come across, the words who, whose, whole, and whore do not have either /w/ or /ʍ/ but /h/, which is different from both. "Whole" and "hole" are homophones.

  • 1
    I've definitely heard "whore" pronounced as "hwore". (And even as "Hoo-er".) Sep 19, 2022 at 14:13

I am a British native speaker, born amongst Cockneys, with a Cockney mother and a middle-class Midlands father, now speaking (more or less) Received Pronunciation (what used to be called 'BBC English'). I, too, have pronounced 'whole' and 'hole' identically. I am not a phonics expert, and with that disclaimer, I venture the opinion that Rodney Everson, of 'OnTrack Reading', is talking (phonically?) out of his whazoo*.

In my experience, some now obsolete 'elevated' or 'genteel' schemes of pronunciation in British speech do suggest a 'hw' start to words beginning with the letters 'wh'. People used to pay for lessons (maybe still do) in this way of speaking from teachers of 'elocution'. The trouble with Mr Everson's advice is that the difference applies to word pairs like 'where' and 'wear'. The first of these, along with 'why', 'what', 'whether', etc, is the type of word Mr Everson would suggest starting with the /hw/ sound.

Years ago my girlfriend and I had a phase of liking a recorded musical work The War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne. As well as music and songs, they had the famous actor Richard Burton doing a spoken role, as the 'narrator'. In one section he describes a Martian fighting machine being attacked by soldiers, and says that the Martian went 'whirling to destruction'. Burton was famous for his voice, and he produced the start of 'whirling' as Everson suggests. Even now, twenty years later, if we are discussing something breaking or being wrecked, we are liable to say 'it went ha-wirling to destruction'.

*thanks gone fishin' again

  • 1
    Should that be hwazoo? ;) Sep 20, 2022 at 7:08
  • @gonefishin'again. - now incorporated and duly acknowledged. Sep 20, 2022 at 21:40

In BrE what, when, which, whump, why are pronounced with the soft "w" sound called, I believe, the “labio-velar approximant”. For a very useful discussion and demonstration of this see here,
Who, whose, whole and hole are all pronounced with the aspirate "h" sound as in "hat".
I'm sure that there are linguists on this site who can give a better technical answer, but it appears that, if "wh" is followed by "o" (that is who{something}) then it's pronounced "h", "wh" followed by any other vowel (a,e,i,u,y) the soft "w" is sounded.

  • This matches my experience of whole being an exception to that pronunciation. Sep 18, 2022 at 19:07
  • 2
    Saying 'what', 'when', etc, in that way is howlingly archaic and stuck-up. We used to see 'humorous' phonetic rendering of Cockney speech where the cheerful barrow-boy said 'wot', in +Punch_ around 1890. Sep 18, 2022 at 19:21
  • 1
    @MichaelHarvey - Unless you need to make it clear that you mean whales rather than Wales, or which rather than witch! Sep 19, 2022 at 7:40
  • @MichaelHarvey No, you seem to misunderstand my answer. I'm not suggesting for one minute that there words should all be pronounced in some comic or archaic manner. As I said, I'm not a linguist and therefore do not possess the right technical terms for a soft "w" sound. I'm contrasting it with the harder "h" sound as in "hat" which seems only to be voiced when "wh" is followed by "o". There may be other exceptions but I can't think of any for now. I think we both agree that RP is the way to go. Sep 19, 2022 at 12:12
  • I think I may have been remembering certain people in my youth who rather over-did the 'wh' thing, possibly as a class-marking thing. Sep 19, 2022 at 12:23

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