I blame “Family Guy.” Well, not entirely, but it is clear the animated comedy has played a role in the Great Language Upheaval.
Which Great Language Upheaval is that, you ask? Why, the great “Whine/Wine Merger,” of course. The situation is very upsetting to me. It is also a bit complicated, so maybe I should explain.
Becky recently finished the Barbara Kingsolver book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” In it was a recipe, “30-minute Mozzarella,” which looked fairly easy, and she thought we should try it.
We gently heated the milk and added the ingredients at the appropriate times. As the mixture cooled, curds began to form, which we then scooped out and kneaded. Eventually, we had a ball of soft cheese. That night we made a pizza and used our 30-minute mozzarella.
The liquid left over after the cheese-making process is called whey. What could we do with it? Ever resourceful, Becky found a recipe for bread made with whey, so that’s what we did. It was good. She made several loaves, one of which I took with me a few days later along with some homemade hummus to an evening get-together with seven mostly musician friends.
As I was relating to the group how we had made the cheese and bread, I mentioned how some people pronounce “whey” (hway) and “way” (way) differently and some don’t. (It was my English teacher self coming through, I guess.)
For a few moments everyone stood there saying the words to themselves checking to see which camp they were in. More than half said the voiced way for both words although a couple were with me in the breathy hway group.
Of course, being guys at a party, we couldn’t couldn’t leave it there — making funny comments is what we do. “This hway bread is hway good,” someone said.
Someone else countered with, “It must have taken a hwile to make all this hwonderful food.”
Another would-be comedian asked, “Hwat did I do with my beer?”
By then every word that began with a “w” got the hw treatment. At that point conversation was difficult — but funny — as each of us became hyper-conscious of what words we were going to say that might contain an initial “w.” It’s like when you are challenged not to say “uh” when you speak.
Fortunately, we musicians have short attention spans because the conversation eventually moved on to other areas where we could practice our feeble stabs at humor.
Later, I continued to think about the two words (and other examples: whale/wail; which/witch) and how most people don’t differentiate between them. I did some research and discovered linguists call this phenomenon the “wine-whine merger.”
Essentially, in English over time the “hw” sound is reduced to “w.” This historical change began at least 900 years ago and continues to happen.
It is more or less complete in much of the English-speaking world with the U.S. among the few holdouts. About 83 percent of those surveyed made no differentiation while 17 percent — mostly in the southeast U.S. — retained some trace of the distinction. Guess that puts me in the minority.
But unlike the student from Princeton, I am not going to make a big deal about it. In a column in The Daily Princetonian, a freshman explained that he feels he is a victim of “microaggression” because he is from an area — the southeast U.S. it turns out — where people make the distinction between “w” and “hw.”
His complaint is that people constantly ask him to say “Cool Whip” and then “… they repeat it back to me with an exaggerated emphasis on the ‘h.’”
He feels put upon, I guess, and has gone so far as to post his complaint on a Facebook page where Princeton students can report any microaggressions they experience on campus.
Because I taught seventh-graders I happen to know that pronouncing an exaggerated “hw” “Cool Whip” is a running joke on “Family Guy.” Apparently, Princeton students are avid viewers of the show which, to me, is the most worrisome aspect of this entire story. These are the future leaders of our country?
Anyway, although I, too make the verbal distinction, I am not going to whine about it. I’ll just relax and have a glass of wine.