Whilst Schneider’s work suggests various explanations for this phenomenon …

… Reggae music and its use of Dread Talk whilst fighting the system it became a part of …

… But if you omit the second PP whilst altering the first PP, it is unlikely that the second would be understood …

… If this is indeed true, then it means that whilst there is such a thing as an ‘objective’ way of syllabifying a sound stream, it may differ from the intended syllabification …

I’ve been living in the UK now for about four months (minus several weeks over the holidays), and so perceiving and accommodating to various varieties of UK English is becoming increasingly routine and comfortable.  It’s to the point where I’m almost just as likely to misunderstand a fellow American as I am a Brit (at least, in Oxford), and sometimes I can go for a minute or so listening to someone without it registering what their accent is.  Or, indeed, American accents are sounding `funnier’ to me, sometimes, than British ones, at least when I overhear them in public.  But despite all that, there’s one US/UK difference that always makes me pause every time I see it written: the use of whilst where I would use while.

The examples above are taken from some of the tutorial essays my students have been writing.  All of my undergraduate students are British (incidentally, none of my graduate students are native English speakers, but that difference is par for the course).  Of course their writing has other British features, but every time I see whilst I just find it incredibly distracting.  I have a theory as to why, so tell me what you think.

Whilst is one of those Britishisms that I learned through reading, rather than talking to real Brits.  In fact, I couldn’t tell you whether or not I’d ever actually heard it pronounced before I moved to the UK.  (I’m sure I did, of course, I just never noticed.)  Anyway, since I learned it from reading, I’ve always pronounced it in my head with an [ɪ] vowel, as in bit.  This is wrong; it’s pronounced with the same vowel as in while, but I didn’t learn/realize that until quite recently.  So, it’s like someone pronouncing the ‘b’ in subtle, only to find out later (one hopes!) that the ‘b’ is silent.  I don’t know if such people pause when they read the word subtle, after learning about the ‘b’, but I definitely pause every time I see whilst, and I think to myself:

… blah blah blah wɪlst … d’oh! no! waylst

before continuing on with whatever I’m reading.

What I wonder is this: will it be possible for me to get over this reading-voice ‘hiccup’ that I have without actually adopting the use of whilst, myself?  This brings to mind questions regarding the accent one hears in one’s head while reading, and, in this case, if one is reading material that one knows is written by someone with a different accent.  I’m sure there are linguists out there who have smart things to say about this.  If that’s you, please leave a comment on this post!

Whilst you ponder that, let me leave you with a recent photo of Christchurch Meadow, at dusk…

Christchurch Meadow (January 2010)


About vocalised

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7 Responses to while/whilst

  1. lynneguist says:

    This is one that I remarked upon (much more briefly) early in my blog. I hated it at first. I do also hear it in spoken language, though. In fact, in a recent post, it’s quoted in an audio announcement at an amusement park.


  2. Caroline says:

    Just checked my thesis and I have used ‘whilst’ 14 times so far and ‘while’ 5 times.

    I have the same reading voice hiccough/hiccup with ‘albeit’. I learnt this word through reading and always though it was pronounced ‘al-but’ I didn’t realise till I heard it that it was actually ‘all-be-it’ 😀

    • Learning English as a second language, I came across “albeit” both as a spoken and a written word (admittedly, very rarely). The interesting thing: It took me several years from the first encounter, before I realized that the two were actually the same…

  3. Hal says:

    I use whilst in writing without a second thought to mean “even though”, though I don’t think I would use it to mean “during the time”..(?) The only person I can think of using it in natural speech was my grandmother, and she was also the only person I’ve ever heard pronounce it with [ɪ]. I’d love to know if that was once a standard pronunciation that became analogized to “while” when it stopped being used in speech or if that was just her being eccentric.

  4. vocalised says:

    That’s so interesting, Hal! Thanks for posting. Now you’ve got me curious, too. Maybe someone else will post, and provide and answer….

  5. wg says:

    ‘whilst’ seems to be more frequently used in England than in Scotland …

  6. iloivar says:

    Whilst is in current use in Appalachian English.

    If I recall correctly, it is pronounced more like you read it – but my memory could be superimposing the way *I* read it onto my memory of its use.

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