Last week a participant in my Speak up Successfully course asked me a very good question: "How do you pronounce the word, 'what'?" He was under the impression that it should be pronounced hwuht with an h in front.
As an American in Singapore I can sometimes be too quick to answer pronunciation questions by explaining how I personally pronounce things. This isn't always fair because Singaporeans have been taught British pronunciation which can be quite different.
I answered his question by saying, "No. There should not be an h sound before the w in what." Like a good student, he went home after the course and checked the online dictionaries I listed in the resource section of his workbook. The next morning there was a mail in my inbox:
"Remember, i asked you how to pronounce WHAT..
dictionary.com says: '/ʰwʌt, ʰwɒt, wʌt, wɒt; unstressed ʰwət, wət/
Show Spelled Pronunciation: [hwuht, hwot, wuht, wot; unstressed hwuht, wuht]'
hwuht means that there's a 'h' in it?"
Hmmm... This is a tricky one.
First of all, it is important to note that several pronunciations are acceptable. Depending on where you are in the world, you may hear people pronounce what with or without what looks like an h sound in front.
My original answer, that there shouldn't be an h was correct for my own variety of English, but wasn't entirely accurate for all varieties. At the same time, in order to really understand what the spelled pronunciation is calling an h sound, we need to go into slightly deeper phonetics.
The superscript h (called a diacritic in the phonetic alphabet) means pre-aspiration. Aspiration refers to your breath, so what that means is that the w sounds slightly ‘breathy’ (for lack of a better non-technical word).
When we breathe out, the closest real sound we make is the h sound which is why it is transcribed as hw in the spelled pronunciation (a slight downfall of spelled pronunciations, in my opinion). This sound is very slight in most varieties of English and I would not classify it as a pure h.
Try putting your hand up in front of your mouth while you make the p sound. You should feel an explosion of air on your hand. This is aspiration. You are not really making the sounds p-h. Rather, your breath accompanies your pronunciation of the p.
The same is happening when you make the w sound, but the breath is coming slightly before the w. If you were to look at the visual imagery of a recording of someone saying what you would be able to see slight aspiration at the beginning of the word. I believe this would also be true of the way that I say it. I cannot however agree that the word starts with an h.
Does that make any sense? What do you think? How do you say WHAT in your variety of English?
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