I asked recently what sorts of blogposts people would like to see, and one of the responses related to question words. This is a great topic, and I’ve decided to deal with it in three separate articles. This is the first and it relates to spelling…
I start by making an association between the furrowed brow of confusion with the shape of the letter ‘w’. We want to know because what we know isn’t enough, is has left us confused and wanting to understand something better.
To find out more, we need some HELP. This establishes that question words in English contain both ‘w’ and ‘h’.
from Latin quod via Germanic and Old English hwæt
We use this question word when we want to find out about a thing.
The pronunciation of the a as /ɒ/ (like ‘o’ in on) is confusing, but if we make a connection with the word that, then it is possible to explain. And if our learners are not ready to accept the vagaries of English spelling, then at least it helps them to remember.
What is that?
from Germanic via Old English hwǣr
We use this question word when we want to find out about the location (place) of something or someone.
The trick for this one is to make a connection with other words related to place, here and there. English pronunciation challenges us again, here, but it’s worth persevering. You can work on somewhere, nowhere, anywhere and everywhere at the same time, or you can come back to to the concept of place when you introduce those words later.
Where are you? I am here. Where it is? It is there.
from Old English hwenne
We use this question word when we want to find out about the timing of something.
When did it happen? It happened then.
from Old English hwā
We use this question word when we want to find out about a person.
Try drawing a smiley face in the ‘o’ – wh🙂. This word uses the /u:/ (‘oo’ as in boot) pronunciation of ‘o’ that we see in do and to.
from Old English hwī
We use this question word when we want to find a reason for something.
I haven’t come up with a reasonable image or connection for this one, so I usually encourage learners to create their own mnemonic aide-memoire with a little sentence that spells the word and a picture to go with it (usually a silly one to make it more memorable) e.g. Why herd yaks?
from West Germanic via Old English hū
We use this question word to find out the way something has happened.
When we want to know this, we often need to go back to the beginning, sometimes looking at things in reverse order. So in this word, the ‘h’ is before the ‘w’… And anyone who has got to the digraph stage of a ubiquitous phonics scheme, or watched My Fair Lady will be able to make the phonic link to “How now brown cow” to assist with spelling.
It always puzzled me as a child that old-fashioned actors in films made before my mother was born would pronounce question words (and words like white, whistle and whiskey) as though the ‘h’ came before the ‘w’. It appears that this hangover from Old English has only really disappeared in most standard English pronunciation in the last 50 years or so. Perhaps if we still used that old /hw/ pronunciation for ‘wh’, children would only be half as confused when learning to read and spell these words!
from Germanic via Old English hwilc,
We use this question word to pinpoint exact details or to choose between options.
Once learners have mastered the ‘wh’ requirement, the rest of this word is actually phonically regular. BUT, there remains confusion between which (question) and witch (fairy tale character). Perhaps this could be avoided by reverting to archaic forms of pronunciation. In the mean time, we can help by stressing that the question word is the one that begins ‘wh’.