Learn English – Silent “w” in words starting with “wr-“


My eldest is a beginning reader. Yesterday we read one of my favorite books, The Wreck of the Zephyr. He pointed at wreck and asked me why that one looked like it said "wuh-reck." I explained that spelling is funny like that sometimes.

This didn't satisfy my curiosity though. Silent w is not uncommon—we see it in the question word 'who' for instance—but it often appears in the combination wr-, and this is what I am curious about.

Was the w ever pronounced in these words (and if so, how)? Do these kind of words all share a common lineage that has some unique sound represented by this combination? (I am thinking of, for instance, that someone told me once that most words with ph come from Greek.)

Best Answer

Not My Field, so subject to correction:

In Old English the “voiced labiovelar approximant” /w/ was in fact pronounced in the initial clusters /wr/ and /wl/. Lass, Cambridge History of the English Language describes the loss of this pronunciation in the context of “Onset-cluster reduction” (III, page 122):

Witch/which, not/knot, Nash/gnash, rite/write are homophones in most varieties of English (see below on the first pair); conservative spelling preserves an earlier state. During our period [1476-1776] English underwent the most extensive simplification of onset clusters in any Germanic language. Old /wr,wl/ and /xn,xr,xl/ were lost in many other dialects, but /kn/ was generally retained (E *knee /ni:/ v. German, Swedish, Dutch /kni:/).
 By late Middle English /wl/ had reduced to /l/ (wlispian > lisp), and /xr,xl,xn/ to /r,l,n/ (hracu > rake, hlūd > loud, hnacod > naked). The only (from a modern perspective) ‘exotic’ clusters remaining were /xw/ (hwilc ‘which’), /wr/ (wrītan ‘write’), and /kn,gn/ (cnāwan ‘know’, gnagan ‘gnaw’). All except /xw/ (> /hw/:3.5.1) simplified in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; /hw/ remained for some southern speakers until well into this century, and is still stable in Scotland, Ireland and parts of North America.
 The first post-Middle English simplification is of /wr/: while most sixteenth-century sources are uninformative, Coote (1596) gives wrest/rest, wrung/rung as homophones. There is sporadic retention in Hodges (1644), and Jones (1701) seems to be the last mention of possible /wr/. In general, /wr/ > /r/ during the seventeenth century.

German developed similarly, but not contemporaneously. Joseph Wright, Historical German Grammar (1907), I,119:

§229.  Germanic w = Engl. w in wet (generally written uu, uv, vu, vv in OHG. manuscripts) remained initially before vowels in OHG. and MHG. as OHG wahsan, to grow, wëg, way, wësan, to be. It became the labio-dental spirant v (written w) = Engl. v in vat, in late MHG., and this has remained in NHG. [...] Initial w had disappeared before l,r in prehistoric OHG., as OHG. ant•luzzi, Goth. wlitz, face, countenance; OHG rëhhan, Goth. wrikan, to persecute.