LINGUIST List 2.432

Sat 24 Aug 1991

Disc: Why 'wh-'

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Ronnie Wilbur, wh-words...
  2. bruce%utafll.uta.eduRICEVM1.RICE.EDU, 'wh', 'gl', and 'th' words
  3. bert peeters, The reasons of sound change

Message 1: wh-words...

Date: Fri, 23 Aug 91 12:29:39 EST
Subject: wh-words...
You may be interested to know that a group of wh-signs in ASL all use
the same handshape (a fist with index finger extending "the pointing hand"
or number 1 in some cultures). The signs WHO (index finger circles mouth)
WHERE (hands moves side-to-side like the gesture for "no" in many cultures)
WHAT (index finger moves downward across opposite palm), WHEN (index finger
circles tip of opposite hand index finger and finally makes contact with it).
Matters then get messy. There is an alternative form for WHAT made with full
flat hands, palm up, moving side to side in front of the signer. The signs
HOW and WHY seem to be independent. Curiously, the signs for WHY, THAT, and
NOW (one variant) use the same handshape - thumb and pinky extended. (yes,
that's NOW, not HOW).
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Message 2: 'wh', 'gl', and 'th' words

Date: Fri, 23 Aug 91 15:21:27 CDT
From: bruce%utafll.uta.eduRICEVM1.RICE.EDU <bruce%utafll.uta.eduRICEVM1.RICE.EDU>
Subject: 'wh', 'gl', and 'th' words
In answer to Mark Sanderson's question of why so many English question words
begin with 'wh', several people have given historical reconstructions back to
Indo-European 'kw' words. But, as John Lawler pointed out, this doesn't
answer why Indo-European 'kw' words "all seemed to have this peculiarity." He
does say such an answer exists.
A more general question is why non-onomatopoetic congruence between semantic
groups and phonological groups exists at all.
Geoffrey Russom gave a satisfying explanation for 'gl' words such as glitter,
gleam, glisten, glow and "other words having to do with light". They derive
from "GHEL, the root of "gold" and "yellow."" This is satisfying because it
explains how this particular congruence got started.
Another example of phonological-semantic congruence is 'th' words in English:
phonological	semantic		phonological	 semantic
'th' is voiced	functor word		'th' is voiceless content word
the, this, that, these, then,		think, thistle, thermal, thaw, three,
there, their, therefore, thus,		theory, thumb, throw, threw...
thee, thou...				through (a counter example)
Any takers on how this congruence got started?
Question: Why does an eagle have wings?
Answer 1: It inherited them from its parents.
Answer 2: It uses them to fly.
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Message 3: The reasons of sound change

Date: Sat, 24 Aug 91 12:21:54 +1000
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: The reasons of sound change
In his reply to the query about wh-words, John Lawler remarks that nobody has
the foggiest idea about why sounds change the way they do, although there
are some theories around as to why sound change should occur in general. I'd
like to point out that some linguists have an answer to both questions (I'm
not saying those answers are necessarily correct, although I for one believe
they are). It may no longer be the most fashionable theory around, but French
functionalism (led by Andre Martinet) argues:
1) that sounds change the way they do because of the eternally unstable balance
 between man's communicative needs and his perceived need to reduce his
 mental and physical efforts to a minimum - this is known as the principle
 of economy (for an overview, see my paper in _La linguistique_ 19:2, 1983,
2) that languages change (i.e. that language change occurs) because they
 function ("les langues changent parce qu'elles fonctionnent") (cf. my squib
 in _Folia linguistica_ 20, 1986, pp.539-543)
Readers of LINGUIST who would like to exchange some of their own publications
with a 200 page manuscript (in French) on "Diachronie, phonologie, et linguis-
tique fonctionnelle" (pre-final draft; suggestions and criticisms welcome) are
invited to get in touch.
Dr Bert Peeters Tel: +61 02 202344
Department of Modern Languages 002 202344
University of Tasmania at Hobart Fax: 002 202186
GPO Box 252C
Hobart TAS 7001
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