Let’s talk English: The “double U”

Published 24th November 2011
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“Double U” is the only English letter name with more than one syllable, except for the occasionally used, though somewhat archaic, œ. It is also the only English letter whose name is not pronounced with any of the sounds that the letter typically makes.

For years, it remained an outsider, not really considered part of the Latin alphabet proper, expressed here by Valenmtin Ickelsamer in the 16th century, who complained that “Poor W is so infamous and unknown that many barely know either its name or its shape, not those who aspire to being Latinists, as they have no need of it, nor do the Germans, not even the schoolmasters, know what to do with it or how to call it…”

In Europe, there are only a few languages that use W in native words and all are located in a central-western European zone between Cornwall and Poland. In Middle High German, the West Germanic phoneme W became realized as V and this is why the German W today represents that sound.

In the alphabets of most modern Romance languages, W is used very little. When a spelling for W in a native word is needed, a spelling from the native alphabet, such as V, U, or OU, can be used instead.
Unlike its use in other languages, the letter is used in Welsh and Cornish to represent the vowel U.

In the Finnish alphabet, W is seen as a variant of V and not a separate letter at all. W was only officially acknowledged as an individual letter in the Danish alphabet in 1980 and the Swedish alphabet only in 2006. The Japanese use W as an ideogram meaning “double”.

English contains a number of words beginning with a W that is silent before a pronounced R – wreak, wrap, wrench, etc.

The nine-syllable initialism w.w.w. takes three times as many syllables to say as the unabbreviated form, World Wide Web! Some people therefore shorten the name “double u” into “dub”. Volkswagen, abbreviated VW would therefore be pronounced “V-Dub”.

So, any thoughts on W?

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