The Case of the Silent ‘W’

viking sword

Specifically the ‘w’ in sword. I like to pronounce it when I am talking to myself or reading aloud an old poem. Speaking the ‘w’ sounds more noble and knightly and easier to see in my mind’s eye two brave knights fighting for the honor of their queen wielding their s’w’ords, rather than their ‘sords.’knight1

Why and how did we make this change, losing the ‘w’ in sword, if we still say swindle and swan, sweater, swoop and swivel? Was it a pronunciation issue or a linguistic change? Because if we can move our mouths to form toward and forward, we can easily say s’w’ord.

Our philological history is evident in the many words and letter combinations retained in modern English we no longer pronounce; remains from our Anglo Saxon and Germanic linguistic forebears. Light, enough, brought come to mind, though there are many others; hard to grasp for English speakers let alone explaining to those learning the language.

Imagine hearing Benjamin Franklin who, according to H. L. Mencken in his remarkable book, The American Language, pronounced the ‘l’ in the words would and should?!!

Mencken, in fact, mentions the issue of the silent ‘w’ in sword, explaining that American colonists pronounced it s’w’ord long after the English abandoned it. That is just over a couple of hundred years ago and in linguistic history, a blink of an eye. I think this bolsters my cause as ammunition enough to reclaim the lost letter. If history is on my side and surely if we can say swore, we can say s’w’ord. En garde!