' wa '

(Update: I've just updated this post for two reasons: a) The Blixy Zoom Words isn't working so I've used plain old writing; b) I needed to make it clear this post was about British English pronunciation)

Look at these words. What do you notice about the sound and the spelling?
wander, want, watch, wash, swallow, warrior, swap, wannna

And now these:
walk, wall, war, warm, water, wardrobe, warning, towards, dwarf

Hopefully you noticed that all the words begin with, or contain, the letters wa.

In British English in the first lot, the wa sounds like it should be spelled wo - we hear the sounds /wɒ/ : watch, swallow, was, etc.

In the second graphic, the wa sounds more like 'wor' (war) or /wɔ:/ walk, warning, award. But if you look carefully, you'll see that the wa in these words is mostly followed by r or l (except in water).


Are these rules? No, they can't be rules because they are not definite enough. There are exceptions such as water and also a very few words where the wa makes a more phonetically regular sound of /wæ/ like in wax (and another word that's not polite enough for The Spelling Blog!) and a few other pronunciations. But there are patterns to be seen.

Are these patterns useful? Yes, I think it's worth raising awareness of this. Nobody ever pointed this out to me and I just thought a lot of these words were phoneticaly irregular, but it's reassuring to see a pattern.

However I would feel happier if I could find an etymological reason for this pattern - believe me, I've searched. Any ideas, anyone?

By the way, when I finally finish my Teaching English Spelling book (before summer 2010, I hope), there will be an awareness-raising exercise about the wa spellings.


  1. Wacky, wag, waggle, wagon, wangle, and their relatives are the only other /wæ/ words I know of. It's hard to think of words when your mind is being led in a taboo direction, as when trying to answer the riddle "What's a common word that begins with f and ends with uck?" The answer is fire-truck, but people usually take a very long time to think of it or else produce no answer at all!

    In eastern AmE, where there is a general LOT=PALM merger, the two groups remain separate, except that the first group is pronounced /wɑ/. In the West and in Canada, LOT=PALM=THOUGHT, so it's /wɑ/ in all these words. However, water doesn't have a fixed lexical set: Americans can /ˈwɔʃɪnˈwɔɾɚ] as I do, or [ˈwɔʃɪnˈwɒɾɚ], or ['wɒʃɪnˈwɒɾɚ] (non-rhotics of course say [ə] rather than [ɚ]).

  2. Thanks John. You've reminded me that I'd meant to add a caveat that I was talking only about British English here. Thanks for your notes about US and Canadian English.

    I was rather hoping you'd be the person to suggest a etymological reason for this pattern. Any ideas?


  3. Oi... I'm too late! I wanted to comment on your, "In the first lot, the wa sounds like it should be spelled wo - we hear the sounds /wɒ/ : watch, swallow, was, etc."

    I believe what you tell me about how things sound where you live, but if I went around saying "wotch" and "swollow" people would ask me where I'm from.

    Is there an etymological reason? Or does the reason have to do with, er... accent-ology (or whatever the study of the history of the changing sound of words is called)? Has the spelling changed, or do we talk different, or is it both.

    For me, the wonder is that we can talk at all. :)

  4. Ha ha, Wendell, yes, sorry it was rather a Britocentric (is that a word?) post. For Canadians, is the vowel sound in 'wag' the same as the vowel sound in 'watch'? (And same question for any other non-British English speakers who happen to be reading.)

    It could well be that the accent changed after the spelling was prescribed, but I'm sure there's a reason out there somewhere.

  5. No worries. I think it needs to be Britocentric given your primary audience. There is no avoiding the local character of spoken English as far as I can see.

    In New Brunswick, 'wag' sounds like 'egg' and 'leg'. It's got the same sound a 'bag' or 'drag' if that's any help.

    'Watch' rhymes with 'scotch' and almost sounds like the beginning of 'ought'. We also say 'wh' - who knows why - so that 'whotch' would seem a sensible phonetic spelling. It's quite different from 'hatch', 'latch' or 'batch' - all of which have that cat - at - hat sound up front.


  6. Um... so now I'm changing my mind, I guess. I do said "wotch" (or rather "whotch") but with a different 'o-sound' than 'war'(= 'wor' = "wore").

    On the other hand, "swallow" (and "wallow" and "wall" and "all") sounds different... closer maybe to the 'au' combination in "cause" (= "was" = "bras" = "saws")

    Well, now I'm befuddled.

    Though I do see, for the first time, the "logic" of my adult learners who confuse "saw" and "was" when they read and write. I've thought of it as a mere visual juxtaposition. Now I'm thinking there's a sound-alike issue as well.

  7. I think I need to add some kind of audio gizmo to the blog. Unless everyone can use and understand the IPA, using English spelling for conversations about how words sound gets pretty knotty (not naughty!)

  8. Marmaduke de PlegeFriday, April 15, 2011

    the word 'one'

    the 'o'sounds like 'wa'

    does any other word use 'o' in this way?

  9. (I'm back!)

    I think if we leave out water as anomalous (as I said, in the U.S. it can be either LOT=PALM or THOUGHT among people who make the distinction: my Southern wife uses LOT=PALM, I use THOUGHT), we can account for everything in this way:

    If a double consonant, including x and ck in that category, follows the written a, it is TRAP. (Wagon used to be spelled waggon.)

    If an r or l follows, it is THOUGHT.

    Otherwise it is LOT.

  10. Marmaduke, the only one I can think of is (the related) 'once'.

  11. One and once have been subjected to a sound-change that has peeled them apart from their close relatives alone (originally 'all one') and lone(ly).

  12. Here in Australia we have wonderful and easy to illustrate words

    wallaby, wattle and waratah to make this list visual.

    I've also been thinking about a Venn Diagram to highlight 'what' if it is useful for your learners.

    List one - wa words, wash, was, watch, etc
    List two - wh words, when, wheel, where etc

    And the word in the middle part of the Venn Diagram - what - as it takes both forms! Stroke of genius huh? ;-) If anyone can think of any other words like 'what' please add them. And any advice for those who overuse 'wh' would also be useful.

  13. Johanna, I'd also love to know the history of this one if you work it out. I've heard someone say that all the wo sounding words used to be spelt with wa. (Not water or walk, just the ones that make the wo sound.) That person said wobble was the only one with the wo spelling and that wobble used to be wabble (sounds plausible). I've since thought of a couple more but there don't seem to be too many common ones.

  14. Yes, Megan, your Venn diagram is a stroke of genius! very nice.

  15. How would teach this spelling to 5 and 6 year olds, in a fun and interactive way?

  16. 'Was' comes up pretty early for readers and is really worth noting. I've worked with many students at age 7, struggling with reading and they usually find 'was' a challenge.

    If you have a book with some of the words in it you can ask the students to search for them. Mrs Wishy Washy springs to mind. Alternatively you can write the text! If you have kids dictionaries direct the students to the wa section to find more words. Get them to paint/illustrate one each. Staple it up and you have a book for the classroom. If you have an interactive whiteboard you may want to do more of a frontloading lesson to draw their attention to these words really closely by looking at the words with pictures that you find. I usually search google images.

    Don't forget about the words like swan and swallow if some students are ready.

    If you want to look at the words closely like I suggested with my Venn diagram idea I suggest using hula hoops. Get the students to write the words on the cards themselves to have ownership of the process. Depending on how clever you are you could attach the whole lot to a pinboard :-)

    1. Have you noticed Johanna that the same pattern applies to "qu"? It seems to be the sound /w/ that causes the change. For example, quad, squash, squat, quaff, quantity. If the pattern is sound based, "what" "swan" and "quad" all fit exactly into the pattern.
      Also, if we describe the pattern as the /w/ sound converting the letter "a" after it into a letter "o", the words like "warn" fit the same pattern. That is, "warn" becomes /w/ /or/ /n/ and "dwarf" becomes /d/ /w/ /or/ /f/.
      Of the words you mentioned, this pattern does not apply to "walk" and "wall", but I see them as controlled by another pattern that controls "talk", "stalk", "chalk", "call", "mall", "hall" "ball", "squall"
      What do you think? Judith

  17. Late entry to this discussion. I'm Australian but our pronunciation is much closer to English than to US.
    I see the single pattern (rule) as: LETTER 'a' after SOUND /w/ is pronounced as if it were LETTER 'o'. Hence 'wand' -> /w o n d/ and 'quad' -> /k w o d/ and 'what' -> /w o t/.
    The digraph 'ar' becomes 'or'; hence 'ward' -> /w or d/. This is the same rule.

    This rule yields precedence to stronger rules: eg 1 vowel digraphs like 'ai' 'a?e' 'ay', 'aw' ; so we have 'wait', 'wave',' way', 'quaint' 'squawk' eg 2 Irregular pasts like 'swam'

    The rule does not apply before sounds /k/ and /g/; hence 'wacky', 'wag', 'wax', 'quack'.

    The rule has not been applied to new imports to the English: wonton, wham, wobble (was wabble until 1850), quark

    So there you have it 'a' becomes 'o' after /w/ sound. My list includes over 50 common words (+ more if you count plurals and tenses etc.

    And a second rule is like it: letter 'o' after sound /w/ acts like letter 'u'; hence 'won' -> 'w u n', 'work' -> 'w ur k' and so on.