looking behind the wh/f debate

February 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

The debate reported on in the last post became one about the relationship between sound and symbol. Most of the posts quoted at some point suggested that symbol had primacy over sound. By that I mean, people talked about dropping the ‘ h’ when Wanganui/Whanganui was pronounced with an initial /w/ rather than /f/.

This is not the way that linguists conceptualise this relationship. We might say … and this is simplifying a little … that the letter is some kind of representation of the sound, not that the other way round. That is, the pronunciation of word might be represented in a spelling system, but the pronunciation is not derived from that spelling. Children learn to speak long before they learn to write, and the majority of cultures do not write in all the languages they know, and yet they intrinsically know how to pronounce words in their language. 

So let us forget about letters and spelling systems for a moment and talk about the sounds of te reo Maaori. When you see a symbol between these slashes, you are looking at sound in that language, not a letter you would use to write that language.  Many of the sounds of te reo are also found in English, and luckily for budding linguists the linguistic symbols look similar to the letter, so the sounds /p, t, k, m, n, w/ are very similar in both languages. (That last w is not involved in the dispute but is a separate sound).  Both languages have the sound /ŋ/ the sound in English sing  and Maaori ngaa ‘the (plural).

The problem with the sound that is written in te reo as <wh> and which is commonly pronounced as /f/ – represented in English as <f>, is that the sound that this represents appears to vary across region and even within the speech of a single speaker.

Te reo exists in a number of dialect forms, and in precontact times there was no concept of a standard dialect. Speakers could understand other dialects even though their sounds were slightly different.

For example in Southern Maori dialect there was no /ŋ/. Where words in other dialects have this sound, Southern dialects have /k/ So Aoraki and Aorangi, are two different dialect versions of the name of the mountain that is also known as Mt Cook.

Our problematic <wh> represents the sound that seemed to have the biggest number of variants across the dialect regions. Maclagan and King (2002, p.54) report the following possible sounds that  the <wh> came to represent.

  • ʍ – similar to the old fashioned pronunciation of which
  • f
  • ɸ – a voiceless biliabial fricative. Flatten lips and hold them tensely and slightly apart – then gently blow air through the gap … or alternatively get a Japanese speaker to say futon!
  • hʷ  like English /h/ but with rounded lips
  • ʔʷ and a glottal stop as in Cockney bu’er for butter but with rounded lips.

By the far the most common pronunciation at present is /f/, however dialect variation is still around and in the Taranaki-Wanganui region  /ʔʷ/ may be the norm. However, there has been no overt agreement on creating a standard dialect for the purposes of teaching. Ask any teacher of te reo, and they will tell you the mixture of dialect forms they teach and encounter in the classroom. 

So back to spelling and  <wh> – we can now think about what the issue Wanganui versus Whanganui really means. We mught say that the issue of spelling is a separate one and the spelling should be <Wh> though locals will pronounce this as  ʔʷaŋanui. Or are we asking the pronunciation to be changed too, to fall in line with the more prevalent dialect choice of <wh>=/f/, i.e.,  faŋanui?

 

Maclagan, Margaret & Jeanette King (2002). The pronunciation of wh in Maaori: a case study from the late nineteenth century. Te reo 45, 45-63.
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