I'd like to know why in the audio clip here what sounds like /hu/. Is it because what could oddly enough be pronounced as /hwʌt/ that starts with /h/. I'd like to add that I don't remember I've heard it pronounced that way with /h/ before.

My main problem is that I expect "what do they" to begin with a /w/ not /h/.

  1. How do you explain that?
  2. If it is common could you come up with another example sentence where what starts with a /h/ sound not /w/?

[laughs] What do they call a Whopper? Vincent: I dunno, I didn't go into Burger King. But, you know what they put on French fries in Holland instead of ketchup?

Source: here

  • I'd be happy to edit the post to conform with the site's rules. That said, I need whoever downvotes to do the courtesy and justify their action.
    – learner
    Feb 10, 2016 at 7:52
  • 1
    Seems like a good question to me :-)
    – user230
    Feb 10, 2016 at 9:07
  • 2
    I can hear the "wh" in "what" but there is an accent that is being used and there is more emphasis on the "h" in the exhale maybe because he's laughing, but the "wh" is definitely there
    – Peter
    Feb 10, 2016 at 10:06
  • 2
    I agree with @Peter. He seems to be chuckling as he speaks, hence the outpuff of air at the onset of the word. But in that particular southern or southern-influenced American accent, what begins with /w/ not /hw/, though some other regional accents|dialects (and sociolects) do use /hw/. I should add, that there is always "an accent being used"
    – TimR
    Feb 10, 2016 at 11:44
  • Strange I (just now) sometimes hear it like whut'dthey with only little /h/ sound. But guess what? Maybe I've heard it a hundred times or more (since yesterday)!!! Listening is a peculiar skill. I stand speechless!
    – learner
    Feb 10, 2016 at 12:12

1 Answer 1


As a native speaker I first thought "What are you talking about? The first sound is clearly /w/!" Then I listened to it another 10 times, at which point I could start to hear the /h/ which you have correctly identified in the clip.

"wh" used to be pronounced /hw/, and sometimes still is, but that sound is becoming rarer as it is being replaced by a plain /w/. "wh" words actually used to be spelt "hw" too! The first word from Beowulf, the oldest surviving long poem in Old English (Wikipedia link), is "HǷÆT" or "Hƿæt". The second letter (Ƿ/ƿ) is wynn and represents /w/. It was later replaced by W/w. In modern English letters the Old English word would be written "hwat" but in Modern English the word is now spelt "what".

I (now) hear the first word in that clip as /hʊd/, like a very fast "hood". The whole phrase (if I slow it down to quarter the speed) sounds like /hʊd.də.ðeɪ.kɔl.ʌ.wɒp/ ("hood d' they call a wop?"). When played at normal speeds the /ʊ/ contributes enough of a "w" sound that a native speaker will hear it, even though it's not present. See semivowel on Wikipedia. The two "d"s from what ("hood") and do are so close together that you may or may not be able to distinguish them as separate sounds at normals speeds, leading you to hear just /hʊ/. Native speakers hear what they expect to hear, not necessarily what was actually spoken! For instance, I also hear "whopper" even though he only says "wop".

I had an English teacher in high school called Mrs. Whittaker. She insisted that we address her as Mrs. Hwittaker, not Mrs. Wittaker. As mentioned before, pronouncing what as /hwɒt/ used to be the norm, but is increasingly rare nowadays. You might hear some but not all speakers pronounce it that way, and not necessarily consistently. One speaker might say it that way 90% of the time and another speaker only 10% of the time, whereas most speakers wouldn't ever say it that way now.

  • Thank goodness, someone's believed me; I wasn't crazy! " Native speakers hear what they expect to hear, not necessarily what was actually spoken!". Couldn't agree more. The best answer ever! Thank you very much.
    – learner
    Feb 10, 2016 at 10:48
  • 1
    @learner I'm glad you found it helpful!
    – CJ Dennis
    Feb 10, 2016 at 11:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .