W

I guess I’m doing a letter tasting today. But this letter has piqued my attention a few times just recently.

On Sunday, for one thing, I was in the antiques market, and I saw a set of cloth bookmarks embroidered Warren. I could have bought them, but I didn’t see it as worthwhile. Why would I have bought them? For my dad. That’s his name. He has a lot of books, too, but some musty old cloth bookmarks probably wouldn’t be the number one thing he wanted.

So that brought the initial W to mind. Also recently, I noticed that one of my friends has a middle initial W. I have no idea what it stands for. I should ask.

But there’s so much more to W. It’s the beginning of some very common names (especially William, one of which I work with), though not so many other words. It’s in the bottom third of the alphabet in terms of frequency of use. It’s worth 4 points in Scrabble. And it has a few striking cultural associations.

One of them is George W. Bush, of course, who went by “Dubya” to distinguish him from his father, George H.W. Bush (the W’s stood for the same thing: Walker). For many people, that’s a rather bitter taste to the letter. But the buffed-down “dubya” version at least takes it a little away from the letter itself. I would rather have another W politician: Kathleen Wynne, the premier of Ontario.

Another cultural association is a magazine, W, originally Women’s Wear Daily, an oversized glossy fashion arbiter (but split the letter and you get VV, which at least among some Canadians stands for Value Village, which is a very economical place to get clothing). Another is a chain of modernist hotels (W Hotels, obviously) run by Starwood and aimed at youthful travellers (but just the ones with an adult amount of cash).

And there are Watts: you’ll see a W on every lightbulb. There is tungsten, which is found in some bulbs and has the symbol W on the periodic table (from German Wolfram). There is the first letter of every US radio station east of the Mississippi (versus K in the west). And of course there is the world wide web, www.

Which is… three letters or six? I mean, it’s a double U, right?

Well, now, in French, they call it double V. Doesn’t that make more sense? This pair of plunging necklines – or fangs, or notches, or or… It’s not UU, right?

Not now it’s not. But it’s time I broke the news to you about U.

You know how in Latin inscriptions all the u’s are v’s? SENATVS POPVLVSQVE ROMANVS and all that. Well, in Latin there was just one letter, shaped V, and it stood for a vowel in some places and a consonant (classically pronounced [w]) in others: VENI VIDI VICI. These days we render the vowels in Latin as u and the consonants as v. But just because that’s what we’ve been doing in English… for the last couple of centuries, but not much more than that.

Seriovsly! The shape u appeared several hundred years ago from scribes writing v cursively. It came to be a variant form of the letter. They were used interchangeably; some printers would prefer one for the start of a word and the other for elsewhere, but it was not formalized. Look at 16th and 17th century texts and you uuill see. Even in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, they are treated as one letter – although by that time the practice was well established of the new u shape being for the vowel and the old v shape being for the consonant.

Old English didn’t actually need a v consonant, because there was no phoneme /v/ in Old English; [v] was just how /f/ was pronounced between two vowels. The French influence helped English come to treat /v/ as a sound in its own right, since French already had that as a separate phoneme and English borrowed a lot of words from it.

But one thing Old English did have as a phoneme was /w/. Yes, they had a /w/ phoneme before they had a /v/. How did they write that? Not with V! Old English used a character borrowed from runes, called wynn and shaped like a cross between a p and a y: ƿ. If you read modern editions of Old English texts, they use a w in place of it for reasons that are probably obvious.

So why did wynn lose? Continental type sets, mainly. Same reason we no longer have eth (ð) and thorn (þ), which would actually be very useful. Printing was invented on the European continent, and they didn’t have those letters. So eth and thorn were replaced by th (and, in a few instances for a while, y as in ye olde), and wynn was replaced by two U’s, which had been in use on the continent for some centuries already to stand for /w/, since the Latin /w/ had shifted to /v/ in many places, causing the consonant V to stand for, well, /v/. The two U’s could be shaped as either UU or VV at first, but the practice of using VV won out, and a single letter W came to be. English is certainly not the only language in the area to use that letter – although other Germanic ones used it for a fricative, not a glide. We got the practice from Norman French. Standard Parisian French, on the other hand, resisted the letter W for many centuries.

The result of all that is a letter that, unlike the others, has a three-syllable name (how ironic that it should be the one we have to say three times: double u double u double u dot whatever dot com) – and a name that does not use the letter itself in the spelling. It is a contrary, uncertain letter, redundant yet necessary, the letter of questions (who? what? when? where? why?), sharp in shape yet smooth in sound, an old sound with a new form but named after an old form of that new form, presenting to the eyes allure or threat: V-necks or fangs? Could be a fifty-fifty chance… or, in Roman numerals, a five-five chance.

Five-five? Yes, W can be a little pun on the US speed limit, 55. But you know speed limits are made to be transgressed. Take a risk: Double you or nothing.

9 responses to “W

  1. Someone recently emailed me about a v/u question, and I was a little stumped. Around the apse in their cathedral, it says SANCTUS about a dozen times and then ends with SANCTUS. I was able to explain the history of the letters and their interchangeability until modern times, but I still don’t know why you’d see that alternation. Any thoughts, James?

  2. The ancient Hebrew het had a W-sound. It probably lost its W-sound under Greek influence after ancient Greek lost its own W-sound represented by the letter we now call digamma (because it looks like a double-gamma or a capital F). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digamma

    Under classical Greek and later Roman influence, the het acquired an X = KS sound. Today it has a KH-sound as in Loch and is usually transliterated as H (as in Haifa) or CH (as in Chanukah).

    Cognates of Hebrew words containing a het usually have a W in English via Germanic Wynn. In second place, they have an X via classical Greek and Latin (which borrowed its X from Greek). English cognates with H or CH are very rare.

    For a list of het-W parallels, see
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Hebrew/het_W_parallels.docx

    and see the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heth

    Ciao, Izzy
    cohen.izzy@gmail.com

  3. Mrvphy’s law?

  4. I was told the reason for the “U” looking like a “V” was a practical one. When chiseling letters on a block of stone, it was much easier to chisel “V” than “U” with the rounded bottom. On second thoght that does not help with other rounded letters like B C D G J O P Q R S. I guess what I was told wasn’t valid.

  5. As for United States radio station names, a few stations that existed before the standardization, such as KDKA in Pittsburgh, were grandfathered in as exception to the rule.

  6. In Italy W, although the letter is not used in normal language, stands for Viva, and often appears before the name of a local saint, as in W S.Rocco. In some cases the letters V are kerned so they slightly overlap.

  7. This was a fascinating read!

    As a Hebrew speaker I was especially interested to note that Latin had a similar practice to our letter Vav – using it sometimes as a consonant V and sometimes as a vowel.

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