Last night a friend asked me why the word write begins with a silent w, so I thought I’d investigate.

According to the OED, the word write comes from the Old English wrítan (to incise, engrave, write, draw; bestow by writing). It is related to the Old Frisian wrîta (to score, write) and the Old Saxon wrîtan (to cut, write), which all come from the from Proto-Germanic *writanan (to tear, scratch).

So it seems that the w goes back to Proto-Germanic, a reconstructed ancestor of all Germanic languages which is thought to have been spoken between about 500 BC and 500 AD.

Does anyone know if the w in write used to be pronounced?

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Language.

7 Responses to Write

  1. Zeppelin says:

    The reduction of initial wr to r is one of the many consonant cluster simplifications that happened on the way from Old to Middle English.

    The Source of All Sources has a convenient list! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_consonant-cluster_reductions

  2. Olof says:

    Definitely, it’s pronounced in other Germanic languages. Notice however that it has been dropped in Icelandic and Faeroese and sporadically in the other Nordic languages. For example ”wrong” is ”rangur” in Icelandic and Faeroese” and ”write” is ”ríta” in all Nordic languages.

  3. Jayarava says:

    Skeat relates it to Dutch ‘rijten’; Icelandic ‘ríta’; Swedish ‘rita’; German ‘reissen’. Seems we all lost our /w/. He suggests a relationship with Sanskrit vardh ‘to cut’ since writing was often originally scratching.

    However I don’t see an Indo-European root with /w/ or /r/ meaning write. Pokorny only lists one ‘write’ which is gerebh- ‘carve, scratch, write’. IE has a remarkable number of roots meaning ‘to cut’ however – about 40. http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/iedocctr/ie-ling/ie-sem/PA/PA_CU.html

  4. David Eger says:

    “Definitely, it’s pronounced in other Germanic languages”

    Some examples from Swedish (sought out to satisfy my own curiosity):

    vrak = wreck
    vrede = wrath

    These are the only results (excluding derivatives) returned by putting “vr” into the ECTACO online Swedish-English dictionary, but I suspect there are more.

  5. Lev says:

    Reminds me of an anecdote. My mother was a programmer in Russia. Her boss had learned German, not English, at school.
    The programming language they used had the keyword “write”, which the boss pronounced according to the German rules. This sounded like the Russian word врите, which means “lie” (as in “be untruthful”).

  6. Sathyarthi says:

    In Tamil, a Dravidian language, the following (possibly allied) example exists:

    v. varai = to write, inscribe; paint, draw

    (NB: consonant clusters are traditionally discouraged)

  7. David Eger says:

    In Latvian, ‘rakstīt’ = ‘to write’ (cf. Lithuanian ‘rašyti’, ‘išreiksti’). No trace of a ‘w’ or ‘v’ there, but there is some similarity with the English. Coincidence?