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

bow-1

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

bow-2

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".

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    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, 2012 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, 2012 at 15:15
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    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, 2012 at 16:49
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    [ɣ] was vocalized, so [bu:ɣan] became [bu:an]; the rest is pretty standard.
    – Alex B.
    Sep 5, 2012 at 19:57
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    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, 2012 at 23:29

3 Answers 3

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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.

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    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, 2012 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, 2017 at 20:42
  • @sumelic: I was but speculating...how would you explain English g / Dutch w in those examples?
    – Cerberus
    Jan 8, 2017 at 23:35
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    I posted an answer. The change is Old English [boɣa] to Middle English [bɔw(ə)] to modern English [boʊ]. The g [ɣ] changed to [w], then the [w] was lost (by merging with the preceding vowel). Middle English still had a vowel + consonant or diphthong [ɔw] or [ɔu] in "bow" which contrasted with the monophthongs [ɔː] and [oː]. Dec 5, 2022 at 3:13
  • @brasstacks: Great, I'll read it later.
    – Cerberus
    Dec 5, 2022 at 5:33
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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.

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As Phil Lulzok says, the Old English g in these words became [w] before being finally lost in the modern English forms.

Old English g between vowels is reconstructed as being pronounced as [ɣ] (a voiced velar fricative). This is very similar to (or even practically indistinguishable from) [ɰ], a voiced velar approximant, and if you add rounding to [ɰ], you get [w]. So even though Old English g contrasted with /w/, the contrast depended mainly on the single feature of rounding. By middle English, [ɣ] after a back vowel had apparently rounded, thus merging with /w/. We see this outcome also for example in gnaw, from Middle English gnawen [ˈgnawən] (also gnaȝen), from Old English gnagan [ˈɡnɑɣɑn]. As knaw also shows, whenever w came to be at the end of a syllable it was not preserved as a consonant phoneme in present-day English, but we can tell that [w] was formerly present in such words by the effect that it had on the quality of the preceding vowel or diphthong that it merged with.

For example, we know that the -g- in boga was not just lost with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel because there are obscure accents of modern English that pronounce (or pronounced) words like toe and tow differently. See the section "toe–tow merger" in the Wikipedia article "Phonological history of English diphthongs":

The toe–tow merger is a merger of the Early Modern English vowels /oː/ (as in toe) and /ou/ (as in tow) that occurs in most dialects of English. (The vowels in Middle English and at the beginning of the Early Modern English period were /ɔː/ and /ɔu/ respectively, and they shifted in the second phase of the Great Vowel Shift.)

The merger occurs in the vast majority of Modern English accents; whether the outcome is monophthongal or diphthongal depends on the accent. The traditional phonetic transcription for General American and earlier Received Pronunciation in the 20th century is /oʊ/, a diphthong. But in a few regional accents, including some in Northern England, East Anglia and South Wales, the merger has not gone through (at least not completely), so that pairs like toe and tow, moan and mown, groan and grown, sole and soul, throne and thrown are distinct.

In 19th century England, the distinction was still very widespread; the main areas with the merger were in the northern Home Counties and parts of the Midlands.

The distinction is most often preserved in East Anglian accents, especially in Norfolk. Peter Trudgill[9] discusses this distinction, and states that "...until very recently, all Norfolk English speakers consistently and automatically maintained the nose-knows distinction... In the 1940s and 1950s, it was therefore a totally unremarkable feature of Norfolk English shared by all speakers, and therefore of no salience whatsoever."

In a recent investigation into the English of the Fens,[12] young people in west Norfolk were found to be maintaining the distinction, with back [ʊu] or [ɤʊ] in the toe set and central [ɐʉ] in the tow set, with the latter but not the former showing the influence of Estuary English.

Walters reports the survival of the distinction in the Welsh English spoken in the Rhondda Valley, with [oː] in the toe words and [ou] in the tow words.

Furthermore, consider Middle English spelling. The OED records the following spellings in Middle English of the descendant of boga: boȝe, bou, bowe, bouwe, boghe. There is alteration from a spelling with g or ȝ to a spelling with w, which fits well with the hypothesis of a change of the consonant [ɣ] to /w/ (or a non-syllabic vowel or offglide [u̯]).

In contrast, the OED records no Middle English spellings with ȝ or w for the descendants of Old English (toe).

In the case of būgan, after the original [ɣ] became rounded the resulting /w/ probably merged sooner with the preceding vowel because [w] is basically just the non-syllabic version of [uː]. As Alex B. wrote, the ow in bow from būgan is a digraph representing the outcome of the Old English long vowel ū: it can be found in words that never had w or g such as now from Old English .

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    it's not necessary to answer the question, but it may be worth noting that the same shift occurs for some post-consonantal g (especially after a resonant), as seen in words like marrow < OE mearg, borrow < OE borgian, and hallow < OE hālga. The fact it caused a new syllable to be added to avoid the illegal rw or lw coda (as with Cl, Cr, & Cn codas) further corroborates that this cannot simply be a result of compensatory lengthening
    – Tristan
    Dec 5, 2022 at 10:03

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