Why is there a silent 'w' in TWO?

language acquisition languages May 22, 2021

Isn't it odd how the English word ‘two’ has a silent ‘W’ in it? Especially when all the other numbers that start with a ‘tw’ we pronounce the ‘w’ – twenty, twice, twelve! Can you think of any related words? What do we call two babies born together...? 

It is probably the case that this silent ‘w’ in two became silent over time in spoken English, but not before the written spelling had been fixed (in the 15th century or so). Hence the ‘W’ is like a spelling fossil, giving us a clue to the pronunciation history of the word. It is connected to the German ‘zwei’ and the Dutch ‘twee’ and going back further in time both actually come from *dwóh.

*Dwóh is two in Proto-Indo-European – a language we linguists have reconstructed based on clues from languages all around Europe and India! I really like this visualisation from Starkey's comics about how so many of our words for 'two' are connected across languages.

When I was an English literature teacher in Scotland, we taught the poem Twa Corbies, which is about two crows deciding where to find their next meal. (It's a bit macabre! Read about it in The Guardian here.) So, in some dialects, you can still hear the 'w' sound in the word for two, which is a little window into how it was pronounced hundreds of years ago in England too.

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