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The "w" in "two"
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2011/01/22
12:59pm
San Diego, CA
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This morning my mother sent me an email wondering if I knew why there was a “w” in the word “two.” I did a little looking into the etymology of the word and discovered that it comes from the Middle and Old English word “twa,” which is the feminine form of the word “twegen.” Each of those words, as far as we know, were pronounced like they’re spelled, with the consonantal “w.”

I thought about it for a while and came up with a couple of theories, but neither really amounts to anything more than a guess on my part. The first is that it might have something to do with the influence of Norman French on the English language. But that one seems like a bit of a stretch, especially since Merriam-Webster’s says that “two” first appears “before the 12th century,” putting it potentially before or very near the same time of the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. That doesn’t seem enough time.

The other thought I had is that the pronunciation of the consonant “w” is actually not all that different from the vowel “oo”–the shape of the mouth between the two sounds is pretty close, to the point where if you slow down a “w” word, it typically becomes an “oo.” So, maybe “two” was originally pronounced like “twoh,” and due to natural shifts in the language the final “o” was dropped. And, since written language tends to change more slowly than spoken language, the spelling simply hasn’t caught up yet.

Is this anywhere near the correct answer?

2011/01/22
2:36pm
Glenn
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First, welcome.

While I haven’t researched the word two specifically, I think your second theory, phonetic assimilation into the rounded vowel, sounds quite likely to me. If so, it would be very similar to what happened to the w sound in wh- (formerly hw-) words before rounded vowel sounds, e.g. who, whole, whose. The same such words before an unrounded vowel lost the h sound instead (for most English dialects), e.g. what, where, when, why, which, whale, whine.

I don’t think you will find that two was ever actually spelled with -oo, but the pronunciation did shift to that sound.

The theory of phonetic assimilation would also fit nicely with the observation that related words with unrounded vowels were able to keep the w sound intact: e.g. twin, twain, twine, between, twelve, twenty.

2011/02/04
10:48am
Lee
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Anyone know how two is pronounced in Wales, where you can find someone playing a crwth in a cwm?

2012/03/15
8:38pm
Bob Bridges
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No, but I’ll point out that the ‘w’ is present not just in middle English but in Scottish as recent as Robert Burns (“twa”), in German (zwei), in Italian (due), Dutch (twee), Portuguese (dois—I know it doesn’t look like a ‘w’, but it’s a ‘w’ sound), Swedish (tvÃ¥), Latin (duo), Greek (δύο) and probably many more, at least in the Indo-European languages.   It’s clear to me that the ‘w’ sound was originally part of the word, and was lost in a few of them: in English pronunciation (though not its spelling), in Spanish and French at least, probably a few others.[Later:] Also Russian (два, transliterates to “dva”).

2013/12/08
11:23am
JohnS
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To Bob, I would add that AFAIK (at least in Swedish and German), there is no sound that is similar to the English “w” sound in “way” or “wow”.

 

So, you do see the W in German spellings, but the pronunciation is always analogous to V sound in English, so the W and the V in “Wernher von Braun” is actually the same consonant.

 

So if the silent W is due to Germanic origins, and if it ever was pronounced, then it is more likely to have been closer to a V sound than a W sound.

2013/12/08
11:33am
tromboniator
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JohnS said
so the W and the V in “Wernher von Braun” is actually the same consonant.

Except that the German v is nearly identical to English f.

2013/12/08
1:16pm
RobertB
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Google does ‘fon’ and ‘fan’ but the rest sound like v:

wernher von braun wagner volga wilhelm vic Wiener van Wagoner

 

(Understand Google is no model of correctness)

2013/12/08
9:57pm
Bob Bridges
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JohnS said
….if the silent W is due to Germanic origins, and if it ever was pronounced, then it is more likely to have been closer to a V sound than a W sound.

I was aware of it, JohnS; in fact I think it’s a ‘v’ sound in Dutch as well.   But the labial sounds, all the labial sounds, tend to get mixed up as they pass from age to age and language to language.   The ‘v’ sound of zwei isn’t an exception to the ‘w’ in other languages, just another example of it in a slightly different form.   Some other ways the labials get crossed up:

  • The 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet (I think it’s the 6th; I’m going to bed soon and don’t feel like looking it up) is usually called “vav” in English; it’s pronounced like a ‘w’ in some positions, like a ‘v’ in others, and a ‘oo’ sound in still more.   (Actually with a different vowel marking it can be pronounced as a long ‘o’, too.)   The same is true with the equivalent character in Arabic.
  • The Latin ‘v’, it is believed, used to be pronounced as a ‘w’ sound, and one system of Latin pronunciation insists that one should say “weni, widi, wici” (spoken, of course, not spelled that way).
  • The old Greek beta (‘β’), second letter of the alphabet, used to be pronounced as a ‘b’.   But in modern Greek it’s almost always softened into a ‘v’ sound.   Meanwhile the upsilon (usually transliterated ‘y’ in English), when it follows ‘ε’, has hardened into either a ‘v’ or ‘f’ sound depending on what comes after.
  • Consider the names “Ewan” and “Evan”, both variant spellings of one Welsh name.   (Actually that’s only my belief; I may be mistaken.)
  • Even ‘f’ and ‘p’ get switched around sometimes; the language of Persia, for example, is called “Farsi”.

Endlessly fascinating!

2013/12/09
2:40am
deaconB
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i must’ve been in my thirties or so when I read something between the lines and   came to the conclusion that the W originally was a UU (or a VV), and then lept to a number of other insights.

You know. there’s a great advantage and a great drawback in being an auto-didact.   You’re free to come to conclusions others are blind to.   On the other hand,you sometimes ignore things others learned in the first week of Whatever 101.   Oops!   You annoy the bleep out of friends when you excitedly share your discov d e ideery, which strikes them as “You didn’t realize THAT?”     And logic without hard evidence is pretty lame, in the end.

So just possibly, is TWO really TUUO and so closely related to TUESDAY that they can’t marry except in Arkansas? Or am I so full of it that my eyes are brown?

 

2013/12/09
5:56am
Glenn
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Sadly, Tuesday has nothing to do with the number two or the concept of pairing.
Online Etymology Dictionary entry for Tuesday

2013/12/09
9:28am
Bob Bridges
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I agree about the advantage and disadvantage of learning on your own.   It means I can learn a lot of things (a lot of things) without paying schools and teachers.   But then I spend unnecessary days trying to figure out(say) how to extract a temporary set of records from a database — and after I’ve succeeded, and used that method again and again, I discover years later that I’ve been doing it the hard way all this time.   Teaching myself means I can go after the information I want, and at my own pace, but there are sudden and curious holes in my knowledge, discovered only at inconvenient times.   Sigh.

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