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English is an interesting and incestuous mangling of stuff. I sometimes think about W and it is a pretty interesting letter with much mystery and intrigue.

  • In French, oui begins with a W sound, yet the word contains no consonant. So firstly: how can W be a consonant? Its formation in the mouth is more like that of a vowel.

  • From Latin roots, there are words with double-Us: vacuum and continuum, etc. Yet, these are distinct from the W: vacwm and continwm are definitely not a thing. To this point, doubling other vowels (e.g. a --> aadoes not generally speaking make them into consonants.)

  • In German, the W is more like our V, and is indeed has a consonant sound to it.

So,

  • When and how did UU become a W?
  • Why are U, UU, V, W such a collective and cross-bred mess in English?
  • Why do we not use W as a literal double-U?
  • From a typographic standpoint, why has the W been rendered as two vs and not two us?
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    There seems to be several questions asked in one; also, the OP may confuse phonology, graphology, and historical linguistics (the evolution of a written consonant in Latin script). – bytebuster Apr 11 '17 at 22:21
  • What are consanants and consant? Are they typos? – Huy Ngo Apr 13 '17 at 9:56
  • @HuyNgo Yes; those are of course both "consonants." – Jameson Apr 13 '17 at 10:13
  • I am not sure that the sound in oui is the same as the sound in wig. But the sound, regardless, behaves as a consonant in English (a wig, not an wig), and as a vowel in French (Et oui, ceci c'est une pipe is pronounced [e.twi], not [e.wi]). – Luís Henrique Apr 17 '17 at 10:37
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    @LuísHenrique I am French and I can tell you that "Et oui" is pronounced [ewi], never [etwi]! – Michel Fioc Jun 19 '18 at 8:18
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"W" developed as a standard, distinct letter by about the 17th century, taking its sweet time getting there. It is the result of standardizing a ligature of "vv", ramming the letters together. Bear in mind that the Latin alphabet did not distinguish "u" and "v" as one can see from inspecting Latin inscriptions (modern publications do, however, generously reconstruct the vowel vs. consonant values for you). The practice of using "uu/vv" to represent w in older Germanic languages such as Old English developed because of differences in the values of consonants in Latin vs. Germanic – Latin at the relevant stage (8th c or so) did not have [w], instead it had [β], so some convention was needed to represent this novel sound.

This page gives samples of written w, and you can compare that to v,u here – there is a striking range of variation in the appearance of "w" (also see this page). A design feature of Gothic script (Blackletter), which was the dominant typeface of the relevant period, emphasizes angular strokes over curves, which rules against "uu" in favor of "vv" (given that "u" and "v" are basically the same letter, historically speaking).

The differentiation of the Latin labial voicoid into "v" and "u" was basically stylistic: "v" initially, "u" otherwise, and they were not used distinctly until 1386.

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Don't take spelling too seriously, it's often conventional and arbitrary. Language is primarily a spoken thing rather than a string of written letters. Don't confuse sounds (phonemes) with their written symbols. Letters and phonemes have their own separate lives. With this proviso, I can try to answer some of your questions.

how can W be a consonant? Its formation in the mouth is more like that of a vowel.

Phonetically, the vowel vs. consonant distinction is a matter of degree, not of type. Some sounds are in the middle. Then, each language decides which sounds can function as syllabic nuclei (and are, therefore, vowels) and which cannot.

In the French word oui effectively there is a consonant in the onset position, regardless the fact it is spelled as ou.

What you call "formation in the mouth" is not the first thing to see: the very similarity is in the realm of Acoustics. Indeed, [w] is almost undistinguishable from the vowel [u] on a phonospectrogram, the only difference being the duration (the vowel lasts longer).

In German, the W is more like our V, and is indeed has a consonant sound to it.

German spelling does not affect English spelling. In general, spelling is often more conservative than the spoken language. In English we still write some sounds that were pronounced around 6 centuries ago, and did completely disappear since then. In German they use W for [v], but V for [f], for similar historical reasons, mixed to arbitrary conventions.

Why are U, UU, V, W such a collective and cross-bred mess in English?

English orthography is a mess, period. But what you mention is not necessarily a mess. Can you provide examples of [w] or [u] spelled with V? Some confusion regards just the sound [w] which is spelled either W or U, on historical principle.

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    This is super interesting stuff, thanks @ArtemijKeidan! – Jameson Apr 11 '17 at 22:53
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    @Jameson indeed the history of orthography is always super fascinating, but it also teaches us that spelling is much more a convention, than a linguistic fact. – Artemij Keidan Apr 11 '17 at 23:00
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This is expounded in R.L. Trask, Robert McColl Millar's Why Do Languages Change? (2010 Rev. ed).

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