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…whether the wether will weather the weather

It so happens that I have already touched on the first and the last member of the triad whetherwetherweather in the past. By a strange coincidence, the interval between the posts dealing with them was exactly four years: they appeared on 19 April 2006 (weather) and 21 April 2010 (whether) respectively. The essay on weather dealt with the origin of the word, and the one on whether discussed the pronunciation of wh– by English speakers. But the story of the conjunction if, posted last week, gave me a new idea: I decided to say something about the etymology of whether, regardless of its initial group. Also, the eagerly awaited World Spelling Congress is supposed to take place this year, and it has been long since I shed online tears about the horrors of written English, so that here I am back with etymology and orthography, true to the title of my other essay, that is, ready to whet the spelling reformers’ blunted purpose.

To begin with: Why are the words in the title spelled differently but pronounced alike? How did all three of them become homophones in the speech of those who “confuse” which and witch, wen and when, and so forth? The distinction between wh- and w- is preserved by relatively few people, but weather and wether are homophones under all circumstances. Of course, whether once began with hw– rather than wh-, but this is a minor point. More important is the fact that, in Middle English, d between vowels became th (as in Modern Engl. the). This process was part of the wave of consonant weakening that swept over all the Germanic languages, though with different force and with different results. For example, at one time, Engl. is rhymed with hiss and has with lass, but the weakening (or, to use a technical term, lenition) changed them to iz and haz. In Old English, father had d in the middle, and so did weather.

Once again, to use technical terms, in the phonetic classification of sounds d is a voiced stop, while th, as in the, this, thy, is a voiced spirant, or a voiced fricative. It follows that in weather lenition turned a voiced stop (d) into a voiced fricative. By contrast, at a rather remote time, whether and wether had þ (= th in Modern Engl. thick) in the middle, and lenition voiced it (in Old English, the full forms were spelled hweþer ~ hwæþer and weþer). Those who bemoan Spelling Reform because it obscures the past of the English language should insist on returning to weder “weather” and hwather “whether,” though the restitution of æ and þ is also a good idea. A glance at the alphabets of Modern Icelandic, Norwegian, and Danish (especially Icelandic) will show that this idea is fully realistic.

The letters 'thorn' and 'ash'.
The letters ‘thorn’ and ‘ash’.

Now, why does weather have ea in the middle? Here we are again in Middle English. (Incidentally, those who intend to study the history of English may consider beginning with the Middle period. The language of Chaucer is incomparably more transparent to modern speakers than the language of Beowulf, and it is not too difficult to move forward and backward from it. Old English often makes little sense without reference to Proto-Germanic and other related languages, whereas Middle English is, to a certain extent, self-sufficient.) In Middle English, vowels followed by a single consonant were usually lengthened, but before –er a great deal of vacillation occurred. In words like feather, heather, leather, weather, the vowel must sometimes have been pronounced short and sometimes long. The spelling with ea reflects length, but, as ill luck would have it, the modern language generalized short e in weather and the rest, so that the traditional spelling gives us wrong ideas.

Some cases are truly outrageous. The worst is of course read, the past tense of read. But everyone who deals with undergraduate papers also knows the horror of lead. For some mysterious reason, the name of the metal seems to baffle no one, but its homophone, the past of the verb lead, invariably appears as lead, perhaps on analogy of read—read. On December 31, 2015, I read (!) a reprint of an article by Angela Fritz from The Washington Post, titled “Storm spikes polar temperatures,” in which the author wrote: “A powerful cyclone—the same storm that lead to two tornado outbreaks in the U.S. and disastrous river flooding, has driven the North Pole to the freezing point this week….” If I were mean enough to make an ad hominem remark, I might say that something is on the fritz in the process of proofreading in the offices of even our best newspapers, but of course I cannot even think of doing such a thing. (How many people know the name of the rhetorical device to which I have resorted, that is, of making a statement while pretending not to do so?)

This wether will certainly weather the weather.
This wether will certainly weather the weather.

Something should also be said about the origin of wether and whether. The etymology of the animal name is disputable but not hopelessly obscure. The word may have been coined as the name of a sexually inactive goat or ram (not yet mature or made impotent by castration). But perhaps the Indo-European root of the word meant “year”; the Gothic cognate of wether means “lamb.” If so, wether signified a year-old animal. Such names, designating very young, two-year old domestic animals (for example, twinter—from two and winter— and yearling), a cow that has not yet calved and has to be protected from bulls (such is one of the proposed etymologies of Engl. heifer), and so forth are common.

Whether at its inception meant “one of the two”; hence the conjunction introducing alternatives. Its ancient root was the same as in the pronoun who; –er is the comparative suffix, as in other. Russian kotoryi “which one” (stress on the second syllable), allied to whether, has retained the word’s initial sense. The idea of the alternative also comes to the foreground in German weder, which today occurs only in weder… noch “neither… nor” and entwederoder “either… or.” Earlier, it could stand at the beginning of a sentence and mean “which one?” like its Slavic congener and analog. The comparative suffix is also present in some words in which we don’t notice it. But when we are told that it occurs in other and either, we realize that the etymology must be correct because each of them suggests choice. The suffix –er formed such a strong association with expressing an alternative that it attached itself to the conjunction or. The Old English for “or” was oþþe. In the Middle English poem Ormulum (see the post on blunt, part 1 on it), three forms occur: oþerr, oþþr, and (before consonants) its shortened variant orr. Our or is its reflex (continuation). German oder “or” went the same way, from eddo. But German also has aber “but,” which reinforced the er-group.

So one wonders whether the wether will weather the weather or whether the weather the wether will kill. I hope the animal will do just fine. We have a harder time weathering the onslaught of Modern English spelling. Shall we overcome?

Featured image: (1) Three Polar bears approach the starboard bow of the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Honolulu (SSN 718) while surfaced 280 miles from the North Pole. Photo by Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US Navy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Letters ‘thorn’ and ‘ash’. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Sheep and lamb jumping. (c) MaXPdia via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “The worst is of course read, the past tense of read.” That reminds me of:
    “Once read thine own breast right, and thou hast done with fears. Man gets no other light, search he a thousand years.” (Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna). Which “read” is this?

  2. Stephen Goranson

    I continue to think that “on the fritz” does not go back to the personal name Fritz (pace OED). It originally obtained not about machines but about persons. Something was stopped, frozen up, frozen out, in dialect. Fritzed or frized (the spelling “on the friz” is also attested early.). Otherwise how to explain the 1902 verse:
    “Would Santa Claus be on the fritz/ If we never had snow?”

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Set of words in Latvian – katrs (each one), otrs (the second) sharing the same suffix dealing with comparative form. Vasara is for summer and vakars for evening. Both related with growing and weakening of light and both sharing ar. Jērs stands for lamb. And one of the favourite things to do in winter in the countryside was weaving. I suppose Hera and Athena might help to clarify some aspects of otherwise obscure words.

  4. John Cowan

    See Cic. In Cat. I, iii: Nam illa nimis antiqua praetereo, quod C. Servilius Ahala Sp. Maelium novis rebus studentem manu sua occidit, which I translate as ‘For I omit, as too antiquated to mention, the case of Gaius Servilius Ahala, who killed Spurius Maelius with his own hands for fomenting revolution’. Wherefore the rhetorical figure is called praeteritio ‘omission’ (note the fifth word of the quotation).

  5. Masha Bell

    I keep hoping that we might modernise English spelling by re-adopting some of Chaucer’s spellings, such as ‘fether, hether, lether, wether. The introduction of ea by court clerks in the 15th centruy when they had to switch from French to English was one of the worst wreckings of English spelling consistency. – See the History page on my EnglishSpellingProblems blog.

  6. nikita

    I trust nobody would mention apophasis.

  7. […] …whether the wether will weather the weather It so happens that I have already touched on the first and the last member of the triad whether–wether—weather in the past. By a strange coincidence, the interval between the posts dealing with them was exactly four years: they appeared on 19 April … Read more on OUPblog (blog) […]

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