John Larrysson's Column: The Letter W

The alphabet had no letter for the W sound. W was not originally part of the Latin alphabet. It still isn't used in modern Latin-descended languages; no French, Italian or Spanish words are written with W, except for loan words from other languages. In Old English the W sound was written with a U, UU or using the Old English runic character known as wynn, Ƿ. (No it is not a P!) Eventually UU merged and became W in Middle English. Most words with a W, such as wolf, want, wife and work, are from Old English. That is why W-words are often common useful things that ordinary people talk about, not words exclusive to the nobility. 

[audio 1]

One question that has often been asked is, why does W look like a double V?  Originally U and V were the same letter. So W is a double V. That is also why words with a UU or VV spelling are so rare, except in borrowed or newly coined words. UU examples include the Latin borrowings vacuum and continuum. VV examples include navvy and savvy. The word savvy came into English from a West Indies pidgin borrowing of French savez-vous, meaning do you know. A navvy is a labourer on a canal (or railroad) and is a truncation of navigation worker to navi meaning one who digs navigation canals.

[audio 2]

Since W is already a doubled letter, it is not doubled in any English root words.1 WW is only found in abbreviations, such as WWW and compound words such as glowworm and willowware.

The letter W is often paired with different second letters in English. These include: WR-, DW-, SW-, TW- and WH-. Also W is often paired with vowels.2 Next time I will cover W word spelling patterns and the letters with which W is paired.

[audio 3]


1. The Old English runic letter Ƿ was not doubled either. 

2. Although it stands alone as W the symbol of the element Tungsten, which abbreviates the German name for the element wolfram. It also stands alone as W, the symbol for watts, the unit of power.

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Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (1): Old English

Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (2): Fake Latin

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by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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