With the help of Wiktionary, we know two useful Midlle English etymologies of the word "bow".


From Old English boga, from Proto-Germanic *bugô. Cognate with Dutch boog, German Bogen, Swedish båge, Danish bue.


From Old English būgan, from Proto-Germanic *beuganan. Cognate with Dutch buigen, German biegen.

And the change from "g" to "w" here is very interesting to me, but I am unfamiliar with the process, even the name of the "sound law".

  • Are word-final "w"s actually pronounced in English? Given the Old English "boga" I can easily imagine a scenario where the second syllable is dropped, leaving just "bo" and the "w" is added simply due to spelling conventions (i.e. completely independent of the missing "g").
    – acattle
    Sep 5 '12 at 15:11
  • To answer my own question, yes word final "w" is pronounced in words such as "wow". However it seems to me that the "w" in "bow" is silent.
    – acattle
    Sep 5 '12 at 15:15
  • Word-final "w" is not pronounced as an individual consonant in Modern English, but it is if the next word begins with a vowel sound ("bow and arrow"). But the nature of English spelling is about combinations of letters: "ow" is one of various ways to write two different English diphthongs (/aʊ/ and /oʊ/). It's a bit like asking if "h" is pronounced in "the". Now a good question is how this spelling came about and whether it is due to once pronouncing the "o" and "w" literally and separately. Sep 5 '12 at 16:49
  • 2
    [ɣ] was vocalized, so [bu:ɣan] became [bu:an]; the rest is pretty standard.
    – Alex B.
    Sep 5 '12 at 19:57
  • 2
    Surely it's just the (very common) process of intervocalic lenition, followed by loss of the final vowel? Which is what @AlexB. is pointing to, I think. Sep 6 '12 at 23:29

There is probably some phonological rule at work where g at the end of a root disappeared in English. The w in bow is probably best seen as a compensatory change in vowel sound. The phenomenon can be observed in English/Dutch low/laag, lay/leg-, lie/lig- (lie on the ground), lie/lieg- (tell a lie), weigh/weeg-, way/weg, saw/zaag, high/hoog, neigh/neig, bow/boog (and arrow), bow/boeg (ship) etc.: you can see how the g disappears in English in many words.

  • 1
    BTW, this is similar to Russian (central and northern dialects) change of -ogo (-ego) (того, синего...) in Gen. of pronouns and adjectives to -ovo (-evo). History says it changed /ogo/ > /oγo/ > /oho/ > /oo/ > /ou̯o/ > /ovo/.
    – Netch
    Nov 10 '12 at 19:21
  • I don't think this is quite right. Supposedly, there have been dialects of English that distinguished words like "toe" and "tow". A change /g/ > /w/ seems to have happened before complete loss of the segment. Jan 8 '17 at 20:42
  • @sumelic: I was but speculating...how would you explain English g / Dutch w in those examples?
    – Cerberus
    Jan 8 '17 at 23:35

Your question is based on a wrong assumption - the letter w in bow2 is due to a spelling convention imposed by French scribes. At first, long u was respelt as ou (like in house), and then all word-final ou's were respelt as ow - I'm sure you've already noticed how rare or non-existent English words are that end in ou. Then long u was diphthongised - the Great Vowel Shift. This stuff is pretty basic, and you can read about it in any intro textbook on the history of English.


There is almost definitely a phonological rule at work here, although the /g/ was probably not "dropped" as others have been claiming, but rather reduced. /w/ is a "labio-velar approximant", meaning it's a combination of two places of sound articulation: the rounding of the lips and the near-closing of the velum. Other "velar" sounds include /g/, which when "reduced", makes half of the /w/. The other half, being that of the rounding of the lips, is a by-product of the back vowels, many of which are rounded (e.g., /u/ , /o/ ), which is why the /g/ in Cerberus's Dutch lexical examples only are realized as /w/ in English in those particular instances.

  • 1
    There's no [w] in bow. Letters (spelling) and sounds/phones (pronunciation) are a bit different things, don't you think?
    – Alex B.
    Sep 11 '12 at 2:51
  • 2
    There is no [w] in bow, now in your dialect.... Sometimes there are spelling artifacts of previously pronounced sounds, such as the fact that "daughter" was earlier pronounced more like the German "tochter". Also, if you see Cerberus's examples from Dutch, then why, if you claim it to simply be letters/spelling, is the {w} not added to the end of the words with front, unrounded vowels? Sep 11 '12 at 8:49
  • 1
    It was dohtor in OE, not daughter.
    – Alex B.
    Sep 11 '12 at 13:58

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