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What is the precise etymology of the word? Was it borrowed at the time when it was pronounced [hwait] or they just perceived it like that?

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    Some dialects of English still pronounce it like that!
    – Zhen Lin
    Oct 5, 2014 at 17:58
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    Oh, like this? Thanks, now it makes sense!
    – katspaugh
    Oct 5, 2014 at 18:41
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    books.google.com/…
    – user1478
    Oct 5, 2014 at 22:35
  • @snailboat, thanks! According to that book it sounds like [hw] is very widespread.
    – katspaugh
    Oct 6, 2014 at 8:03
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    Just for your information, Soseki used ホワイト in this article, which is written in 1911. He had studied abroad in Great Britain from 1900 to 1903. Kafuu also used ホワイト in this article in 1916.
    – marasai
    Mar 8, 2015 at 18:13

3 Answers 3

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Yes, it is derived from English classical pronunciation wh /hw/. English wh + vowel is transcribed using ホワ /howa/, ホエ /hoe/, ホイ /hoi/ in Japanese.

( In other words, English wh /hw/ is transcribed as /how/ in Japanese, but loses its /w/ sound when followed by a vowel other than /a/, because only /a/ can follow /w/ in traditional modern Japanese.)

When English words were first introduced and sound transcription rules were gradually formed, they tried as far as possible to keep distinctive English sounds being distinctive in Japanese too.

At least, in this case, English wh /hw/ had to be transcribed as different from both English /f/ and /w/.

So, under the conservative phonetic system of those days, which only allowed syllables listed in traditional modern 五十音図, English /f/, /w/ and /hw/ became to be most likely rendered following rules as below:

  1. En. /f/ > Jp. /hu/ :
    e.g. fat フアット /huaQto/ -- fair フエア /huea/ -- fit フイット /huiQto/
  2. En. /w/ > Jp. /w/ before /a/, /u/ otherwise :
    e.g. watt ワット /waQto/ -- wear ウエア /uea/ -- wit ウイット /uiQto/
  3. En. /hw/ > Jp. /how/ before /a/, /ho/ otherwise :
    e.g. what ホワット /howaQto/ -- where ホエア /hoea/ -- whip ホイップ /hoiQpu/

Subsequently, as for lines #1 and #2 above, non-traditional sounds like ファット /FaQto/, フェア /Fea/, ウィット /wiQto/, etc. gradually came into use. But sounds of #3 seem to remain unchanged until now.

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Depending on where they are from, some native English speakers pronounce the "H" in "white". This reminds me of how Stewie from Family Guy pronounces Cool Whip.

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Tons of words that trickled into Japanese came first through European English.

Which is why things like cup/glass are "garasu" (because it sounds more like "gloss" ...coming from an American English vernacular)

Howaito probably came from the same path-of-travel... So when you look at words spelled in Katakana, the earlier they came into the Japanese lexicon, the more likely they are from Portuguese or Queen's English.

the more you know

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    I'm doubtful about some of the info in this answer. Wiktionary says that ガラス comes from the Dutch word glas, rather than English. Mar 8, 2015 at 6:57
  • Cool. So it came from Europe and not North America.
    – sova
    Mar 8, 2015 at 7:01
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    A reminder to certain posters of deleted comments: whether you agree or disagree with someone, please be polite about it.
    – user1478
    Mar 8, 2015 at 11:35

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