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I like how hillbillies pronounce this relative pronoun:  hwut. It’s truest to the spelling and the history of the word. Wally Cleaver pronounced it that way, too. He said  hwen  and  hwere  and  hwy? A well-brought-up lad he was.

Word of the Day The monks who introduced the Roman alphabet into England, to evangelize the pagan Saxons and teach some of them to read, were faced with an obvious problem. How do we use these Roman letters to signify sounds and sound-combinations that don’t exist in Latin? They actually did a phenomenally good job of it. They heard the Saxons pronouncing words—quite a lot of them, and some very common words among them—that began with an aspirated  w. Round your lips, make as if you’re going to  hwistle,  blowing air out and saying  witch. Did you hear it? You just turned it into  which. Do the same with wail. Shazzam!  You have pronounced  whale.

The monks were sensible and careful men, so they placed the  before the  w, hwere  it really belonged. Our modern  wh- words were, in Anglo Saxon,  hw-  words. What  was one such:  hwaet.

Hwy  is that important? Well, suppose we want to find relatives in Greek and Latin. We want to know  hwich  consonant really  begins the word. In this case it is  h. So we apply Grimm’s Law. That law says: Never gather salad greens from a witch’s back yard. Actually, it instructs us, among other things, that words in Germanic that begin with  are the cousins of words in Greek and Latin that begin with  c (k). So it is with  hwaet. But in Latin,  hwen  sound is followed by the consonant  w,  the result is spelled  qu-. There’s our cousin: Latin  quod, what  (Grimm also tells us that Germanic  d =  Latin  t ). A related word,  whit,  recalls Latin  quid,  as anyone with a  hwit  of wit (not related to whit or what) would conclude.

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