White; A Brief Discussion

By June 26, 2012Introspective, Project

The end of the semester rolled around, and before I knew it, I was hit on the head by the multitude of projects I had put off for so many months. It came as no surprise when I had to get myself to sit in front of the computer and churn out pages after pages of written text, seconds after seconds of musical notes, and lines after lines (or boxes after boxes) of written code for Interactive Media. Consecutive days were spent toiling away at semester-end projects, reminding me of my consistent procrastination habit.

Nevertheless, deadlines passed and projects were submitted. Whether they were of viable quality, I know not. I haven’t even had the heart to check my last semester’s grade for fear of being utterly disappointed with the my results. Organic chemistry itself took it’s toll on my GPA, as well as developing stressful periods for my other courses. In retrospect, I might have committed too much time to certain classes where it was not needed. My effort distribution was considerably not optimal, and thus some of my subjectively more important classes suffered. Regardless, college is a learning experience, and balancing our daily lives is a skill we familiar ourselves with time. Suffice to say, the sooner we learn to control our lives, the better. Nay?

So here I have my ENLS3030 (History of the English Language) semester project, a quick paper about a word, inspired by my supposedly strange pronunciation of the word “white.” Read on to find out more.


Pronounced differently by all individuals across the world, the word “white” is an example of a word that has developed many meanings through its history. Pronunciation of the word white is so different among individuals that there are two accepted forms: hwīt, ˈwīt. If one were to visit the appropriate link, one could get a small glimpse of subtle pronunciation differences. Even within the United States, individuals stress the opening hw versus w differently, as well as formation of the final t consonant. This strange variation in pronunciation was what instigated my curiosity about this word’s history. As one who pronounces the word as hwīt, I find my friends’ amusement with my articulation to be strange. Though, I never did have good pronunciation in the first place:


intended pronunciation
my pronunciation





Granted, I have corrected my pronunciation of many words since then, but as someone who grew up with parents who were learning English during the same time as me, I find the habit of pronouncing words incorrectly strangely fascinating. This particular paper broadly explores and discusses “white’s” origins, pronunciation, changing growth, and personal experiences.


The word “white” can be traced back all the way to Sanskrit through the word “cvit” (Oxford English Dictionary 263). “White” then came into Proto Indo-European as the word “kweid” or “kwid”. As the Indo-European languages divided and evolved, the Proto-Germanic form of “white” became “hwitaz” (Barnhart 1233). Eventually, it came to be spelled and pronounced as it is today during Early Modern English. The word shares many cognates with languages such as Old Frisian and Old Saxon, in the word “hwit”, Dutch, in the word “wit”, and many more (Barnhart 1233).

In Sanskrit, “white” meant “to be bright or white,” and during the time of Proto Indo-European, the word’s meaning changed only slightly to mean “white, shining…the white robes worn for baptism.” Eventually, Old English assigned the meaning “Of the colour of snow or milk.” However, over time the word’s meaning evolved into something very different; “Morally or spiritually pure or stainless; spotless, unstained, innocent.” The first documented case of the word being used according to this definition dates back to 971 A.D. As it got older, white grew increasingly polysemic in nature, allowing for its application to be widely used. Eventually, the word came into Old English as “hwaIt” (Oxford English Dictionary 263).

The Anglo-Saxons’s culture, which produced authors like Bede and epic adventures like Beowulf, revealed some of the first written evidence of the word, or at least it’s predecessor. The Anglo-Saxons were also the first to start using the word white as a surname for a person who had light hair or a fair complexion.

Today, variations of white—all with their root in the ancient Proto-Indo-European language—are found in 20 languages around the world, including Sanskrit and Slavic. Verb and noun forms of white currently exist, though they are used more as specific jargon in specialized situations and much less in common daily use.


As a result of Grimm’s Law, Indo-European voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives in many of the Germanic language environments. Due to the fact that Proto-Indo-European interrogative words normally began with *k, English interrogatives (who, which, that, when, where) typically begin with [wh]. As a result of this tendency, a common grammatical phenomenon affecting interrogative words has been given the name wh-movement, even in reference to languages in which interrogative words do not begin with [wh].

The pronunciation of the digraph [wh] in English has varied with time, and can still vary today between different regions. According to the historical period and the accent of the speaker, it is most commonly realized as the consonant cluster /hw/ or as /w/. Before rounded vowels, as in who and whole, it is often realized as /h/.

The historical pronunciation of this digraph is in most cases /hw/, but in many dialects of English it has merged with /w/, a process known as the wine–whine merger. In dialects which maintain the distinction, it is generally transcribed [ʍ], and is equivalent to a voiceless [w̥] or [hw̥]. The wine–whine merger is a merger by which voiceless /hw/ is reduced to voiced /w/. It has occurred historically in the dialects of the great majority of English speakers. The resulting /w/ is generally pronounced [w], but sometimes [hw̥]; this may behypercorrection. Examples of homophonous pairs are wine/whine, wail/whale, wear/where, witch/which etc


White carries numerous meanings, though the most prominent and common usage is probably it’s role as a color. That being said, white being the lack of color carries innumerable connations and applications in imagery or symbolism. Below are a few of the many:

  • ghosts
  • purity
  • softness
  • emptiness
  • God
  • sickness
  • lack
  • snow
  • Caucasian
  • peace
  • clean
  • light
  • clouds
  • milk
  • angels
  • weakness
  • bones
  • winter
  • innocence
  • When thinking about the word “white,” my natural tendency is to evoke images of beauty and cleanliness. This immediate focus on positive ideas is fascinatingly deceptive of “white’s” complex interior. As the preceding list may indicate, there are numerous negative images or connotations associated with “white.” How the word “white” come to possess such a variety of meanings or relationships?
    In the 1980s, the term “white knight” was used when companies were in financial trouble. A “white knight” was a champion or rescuer. The term was derived from fairy tale knights in shining armor. Within this context, the word “white” was used for positive enforcement and imagery. Let’s take another example from a favorite movie of mine: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

    Animated movies, as an art form, tend to create compelling insights into their art choices. Through the lenses of this film, we see two prominent uses of white: (1) in the heroine’s name and (2) in the ending scenes/sequences of the film. Snow White’s name is perhaps the epitome of purity and goodness. Not only does Snow White’s “White” evoke a sense of good nature, which is affirmed through her caring acts and patience with the seven dwarves, but “Snow” further solidifies the proposition. In addition, the ending scene where Snow White is resurrected by the prince’s kiss, the prince enters upon a white horse, and the art palette of the final scenes are brighter and more vivid (as consequence of more light/white).

    This moments of themes and strong associations of white and good are juxtaposed with the association of black and evil. Many art forms and mediums use the polar characteristics of create greater tension in their work. This is common in everyday language as well, considering that if one is able to obtain two ends of a single spectrum, anything that follows can be placed within its definition. Many expressions using the word “white” have been designed to reflect the fact that black is bad and white is good. One definition of “white” cites that white is “chiefly in collocation with black,” (Oxford English Dictionary 264). In addition, expressions such as “white list” from the twentieth century carries the opposite meaning as “black list” (essentially list of people/products viewed with approval. “White magic,” another term from the nineteenth century, was universally treated as good magic and rather harmless, as opposed to “black magic.” What is noteworthy here, however, is the fact that though white and black may seem like opposites, they are in fact hyponyms. In their strictest sense, white and black belong to the same semantic field with color being the superordinate term. If one were to become even more technical, black is the presence of all color, while white is the absence of color (this is the opposite in conditions using light), which ultimately then allows to determine that though strongly related, white and black are not opposite terms.

    The existence of a polar counterpart, however, was not able to maintain white’s overall sense of purity. Words grow and change through their usage. The evolution of the word “white,” during the days 1870s and 1880s,, has been heavily socially influenced. Over time, “white” quickly became a highly socially charged term for the Caucasian race, much like “nigger” or “black” did during that time period. The term has come full circle from meaning something good and pure, to something corrupt and sickly. Although it is clear how the word grew to mean the many things it does today, it is not clear why English speakers grant the word such social power. However, what is apparent is the word’s ability to change and evolve with the current climate of society.

    This was not the only time or example throughout history which the word “white” gained a negative connotation. For example, terms such as “white apron” carried the meaning of a prostitute (or at least, a prostitue’s uniform) in about the sixteenth century. Also, tuberculosis was alternatively referred to as the “white death” due it being a disease white men suffered from. I’ve even used the term “whited sepulcher”, occasionally, to describe a nasty person who pretends good (good on the outside, rotten on the inside).


    It may not come as a surprise anymore that white carries negative connotation. This was something I was not aware of as a child, and mistakenly insulted my grandfather as I tried to give him a gift. As a kid, I always enjoyed folding paper. It was a craft known as origami. I had always taken pride in being adequate and folding reasonably difficult crease patterns, and thought it would be fitting to offer my grandfather a origami circle of eight cranes made from one, uncut sheet of paper. After having folded the origami piece, I shuffled over to offer the present to my grandfather. To my surprise, he picked up the cranes and promptly ripped them in his hands. He quickly reprimanded me and my mother for my lack of sensitivity.

    As it turns out, white, in Chinese culture, is the color of mourning. It is associated with death and is used predominantly in funerals in Chinese culture. In Western culture, white generally conveys a sense of purity, chastity, holiness and cleanliness without similar connotations of death. Ancient Chinese people wore white clothes and hats only when they mourned for the dead. Where does this difference arise from? Is there a particular reason why white symbolizes death as opposed to the western black?

    At first glance, it is easy to assume and understand how white can embody death, with its potentially peaceful and empty nature. After all, a contemporary definition of the Chinese character is “plain and blank.” If we observe Chinese etymology, we observe that the gradual changes the 白(bái ) character as it progressed through history.

    The pictogram that the character originates from depicts an acorn. The character acquired its current meaning of white from the color of the acorn’s flesh. The original meaning, since then has been lost. The root character (日, the character other words are built off of) is a pictographic representation of the sun. The final contemporary form of 白(bai) represents the sun pointing upwards: indicating rising. The character ultimately evokes the white light of the sun. Consequently, then if the origins of the Chinese character 白 are generally of similar notions as the western world, why is the color used for such a different occasion?

    According to the Yi Jing, or Book of Changes, there existed a traditional Chinese system where five colors, black red, greenish blue, white and yellow are regarded as standard colors. The color black was regarded as the color of heaven in the Book of Changes. The saying “heaven and earth of mysterious black” was rooted in the feeling of ancient people that the northern sky shows a mysterious black color for a long time. They thought that the North Star is where the Tian Di (heavenly emperor) is. Therefore, black was regarded as the king of all colors in ancient China. It is also the single color that was worshipped the longest time in ancient China. In the Taiji diagram of ancient China, black and white are used to represent the unity of Yin and Yang.

    In the ancient Chinese concepts of color, the color white represents multiple things. In the theory of “Five Elements”, white corresponds to gold, which shows that the ancient Chinese people felt that the color white symbolizes brightness and classifies it as a standard color, representing the nature of purity, brightness and fullness.

    The color red symbolizes good fortune and joy to the Chinese people. The color yellow is the color of the center, symbolizing the color of the earth. In China, there is a saying, “Yellow generates Yin and Yang,” regarding yellow as the center of all colors. Yellow is the orthodox color positioned in the center and is the color of neutrality. It is placed above the color brown and regarded as the most beautiful color of all (Wilhelm).

    Today, tradition and culture continues to have great focus on colors. Yellow is the color for emperors. Royal palaces, royal altars and royal temples often use the yellow color. Yellow also represents being free from worldly cares. Therefore it is also a color respected in Buddhism. Monks’ garments are yellow and temples are also yellow. Red is one of the colors beloved by the Chinese people. In the celebration of the New Year, holidays and gatherings, the red color is a must. Purple is the color of a propitious omen and solemnity. Among the Chinese people, there is the saying “purple sparrows in beams, carries mud in pairs, coming and going.” White is the color of mourning. Ancient Chinese people wore white clothes and hats only when they mourned for the dead. These traditions’ origins are not well known, according to my parents.

    In the end, exact origins of word from any language are difficult to discover. There are definitely traces of where words have been and how they have changed, and that is true within any culture or language environment. Though, it is arguable that many of us take for granted, the subtle details that construct our language and give it its character are deeper and older than we can imagine.

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