The Letter H

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The Letter H

Postby UniqueScreenname » Tue Mar 06, 2012 7:07 pm UTC

I am going to take this opportunity to raise some concerns about the letter H. I do not understand why people have decided that the letter H should be preceded by "an". "An" is for vowels. Yes, H can very often be silent and "an" should be used in cases such as honor, hour, herb (if you pronounce it silently), etc. Who decided that "an howl", "an humble", or "an hindrance" sounds right?

Also, what determines whether an H is pronounced or not? I believe Brits pronounce the H in herb, but I do not. Are there rules about this?
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Re: The Letter H

Postby goofy » Tue Mar 06, 2012 7:22 pm UTC

The Old French word was erbe, and it was erbe in Middle English until about 1475, when an h was added so that it looked more like the Latin spelling herba. But the h was silent until the 19th century.

The OED on h:

In late Latin, and in the Romanic languages, the aspirate was no longer pronounced, and consequently often not written; in modern Italian it is entirely omitted, as in eretico, istorico, orribile. In Old French similarly the mute h was originally not written, and it was in this form that many Old French words, such as abit, able, eir, erbe, eritage, onest, onor or onur, ure or oure, ympne, were originally adopted in English. From this stage we derive the still existing forms able, ability, arbour (= erbere), ostler. But at a later period, imitation of the Latin spelling, by scribes who knew that language, gradually led to the restitution of h in the writing of most of these words in French, and thence also in English. In French, the h, though thus artificially reinstated in spelling, remained mute; but in England it was gradually, after the usage of the native words, restored in pronunciation, so that at the present day only a very few words, viz. heir, honest, honour, hour, with their derivatives, remain with h mute; though others, such as herb, humble, humour, were so treated very recently, and are by some people still; and hostler (also spelt ostler) is so pronounced by the majority. A trace of the former muteness or weakness of h in other words is also seen in the still prevalent practice of using an before words with initial h, not accented on the first syllable, as heretical, historical, humane, hypotenuse, and in such archaic forms as ‘mine host’, and the biblical ‘an Hebrew’. In the Middle English period, during which h was being gradually reinstated in words from Old French, these show great variety of spelling, the same word appearing now with, and now without h; this uncertainty reacted upon other words beginning with a vowel, so that these also often received an initial h (due probably in some instances, as habundant, to a mistaken notion of their etymology). This spelling has been permanently established in the words hermit and hostage, among others.

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Re: The Letter H

Postby eSOANEM » Tue Mar 06, 2012 7:50 pm UTC

Also, in RP (which is roughly the accent of the British upper and middle classes), many words beginning with an "h" have the "h" elided or sometimes voiced so it's less audible, in these cases, the words (such as "hotel" or "historic") do actually sound as if they begin with a vowel more than most fricative onset words.

This argument certainly explains why it is/has been common in the last two centuries of so in Britain (as most literary writers (whose works are often cited when looking at grammars because of the way their style can seep into that of the general public) will (or at least would have) tried to imitate (or would have belonged to) the upper classes and so using an "an" would seem completely natural and saying "a hotel" or "a historic" event would sound ugly, uncultured and common). Of course, in order to extend this argument to America, we'd need to posit that this elision of initial "h"s in RP has been common since before significant immigration to America but, if it's just a hang-up from old French (which would also explain why it stuck in the upper class(es) who were/tried to imitate the Norman rulers following 1066 and not the working class (who were predominantly saxon), it would seem likely that it's existed for the best part of 1000 years in RP (or its predecessors).
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Re: The Letter H

Postby ekolis » Wed Mar 07, 2012 4:38 am UTC

UniqueScreenname wrote:I do not understand why people have decided that the letter H should be preceded by "an". "An" is for vowels.


"An" is for vowel SOUNDS, not vowel LETTERS. Thus, we have "an honor" (the H is silent) and "a unicorn" (the U is pronounced like "you", not like "uh").
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Re: The Letter H

Postby UniqueScreenname » Wed Mar 07, 2012 1:17 pm UTC

ekolis wrote:
UniqueScreenname wrote:I do not understand why people have decided that the letter H should be preceded by "an". "An" is for vowels.


"An" is for vowel SOUNDS, not vowel LETTERS. Thus, we have "an honor" (the H is silent) and "a unicorn" (the U is pronounced like "you", not like "uh").

Right, that's what I meant. I am complaining about the H that is pronounced and therefore does not have a vowel sound.
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Re: The Letter H

Postby goofy » Wed Mar 07, 2012 2:48 pm UTC

UniqueScreenname wrote:Right, that's what I meant. I am complaining about the H that is pronounced and therefore does not have a vowel sound.


This is explained in the OED entry that I quote.

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Re: The Letter H

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Mar 07, 2012 11:13 pm UTC

Indeed, but apparently ekolis didn't even get to the end of the first post, let alone any of the responses.
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Re: The Letter H

Postby Eugo » Fri Mar 16, 2012 12:03 am UTC

I have some other concerns about the poor aitch. It's so underpronounced (i.e. underrepresented in pronunciation) in so many languages. I think the Italians are at least onest with it - they don't write it when they don't pronounce it. Except... they do, in the ch combination (so the ce and ci wouldn't be pronounced che and chi).

This forum being restricted to anglophone POV (other languages are something to learn or practice, not discuss quirks in them), I'll disregard other languages. I, therefore, have only two remarks:

- how is kh pronounced? Is "khan" a kan or a han? I know of only one case when it's neither - there's a location called Linkhorn, and it's pronounced with both k and h audible. I almost fainted.

- I haven't found any exception to the sh being pronounced as anything else but sh (as in shutter), and in all the words having that, the aitch is entirely consumed in its liaison with s... except in threshold. That word somehow contains an invisible but audible doppelganger aitch, so I hear thresh-hold. The aitch is consumed, yet audible again after that. Confirmed by my daughter, who has much more acute auditory apparatus than I have.
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Re: The Letter H

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Mar 16, 2012 3:52 am UTC

"Khan" is pronounced with an aspirated "k", but since initial 'k's are always aspirated anyway, it doesn't sound any different from "con", at least in my own pronunciation. But in addition to your example, they're both pronounced in "bulkhead", "elkhound", "deckhand", and quite a few other compounds.

The s and h are both pronounced in "asshole" and "dishearten", with no intervening "sh" sound at all. In "dishonest" and "dishonor", there's no "sh" sound, but neither is there an "h" sound.

I suspect that like "kh", "sh" across a morpheme boundary is almost always pronounced separately, I just can't think of a whole lot of words where that happens.
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Re: The Letter H

Postby Derek » Fri Mar 16, 2012 6:32 am UTC

Yeah. All the examples that gmalivuk gave for both "kh" and "sh" are across morpheme boundaries, where they represent two distinct sounds and the letters are only adjacent by coincidence. In other instances, "sh" and "kh" represent (and have always represented) a single phoneme. The "h" is "sh" is not consumed, it was simply never there to begin with. "sh" is just how someone a long time ago decided to write the /ʃ/ sound. Likewise for "th" and "ch" (in their most common pronunciations), and probably a couple other digraphs that I'm forgetting.

"Threshold" is kind of interesting that in that it contains by the "sh" sound and the "h" sound (though some dialects drop this), but only one "h". I'm not sure what the reason for this is. It might just be that double h's ("threshhold") looked stupid.

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Re: The Letter H

Postby UniqueScreenname » Fri Mar 16, 2012 12:14 pm UTC

It's interesting Eugo brought up Italian, because it seems like Italian is the opposite of English when talking about pronunciation. I can only think of five cases (ci, ce, sce, sci, ch) where the sound comes from a combination of letters instead of the letter itself being pronounced. English on the other hand has a whole bunch of sounds created by combinations of letters. That's why it's such a pain to learn.

All of the cases though where the k and h or s and h are both pronounced are either compound words or words with prefixes, so the sounds wouldn't be pronounced together because the parts of the word have different origins.
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Re: The Letter H

Postby goofy » Fri Mar 16, 2012 1:28 pm UTC

Eugo wrote:- how is kh pronounced?


In Persian and some dialects of Hindi-Urdu, the first sound in "khan" is a voiceless velar fricative. In English I'd say it's the same as "k".

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Re: The Letter H

Postby hni » Sun May 06, 2012 3:04 pm UTC

goofy wrote:
Eugo wrote:- how is kh pronounced?


In Persian and some dialects of Hindi-Urdu, the first sound in "khan" is a voiceless velar fricative. In English I'd say it's the same as "k".


Exactly, if 'kh' is present in a word of non-European origin, then it's usually pronounced as a voiceless velar fricative. It's pretty much the standard for transcribing that sound into English.'

Inserestingly, Hindi-Urdu also has k and h pronounced separately, but together, exactly like 'Linkhorn', so that leads to some problems transcribing it on the internet.

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Re: The Letter H

Postby Twelfthroot » Sun May 06, 2012 6:18 pm UTC

Who decided that "an howl", "an humble", or "an hindrance" sounds right?

I just wanted to point out that I would never say any of these. I was going to say I can't imagine hearing any of them either, but after reading that OED entry I can indeed picture someone with a non-American accent saying "an 'indrance" or "an'umble fella'" or somesuch. An howl, though, just sounds silly to me, probably because I'm not willing to accept "I heard an howl" being indistinguishable from "I heard an owl".

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Re: The Letter H

Postby goofy » Mon May 07, 2012 3:41 am UTC

hni wrote:
goofy wrote:
Eugo wrote:- how is kh pronounced?


In Persian and some dialects of Hindi-Urdu, the first sound in "khan" is a voiceless velar fricative. In English I'd say it's the same as "k".


Exactly, if 'kh' is present in a word of non-European origin, then it's usually pronounced as a voiceless velar fricative.


Really? I'd say it's usually pronounced as a velar stop.

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Re: The Letter H

Postby gmalivuk » Mon May 07, 2012 2:27 pm UTC

Yeah, even if in the original language it was a fricative, English-speakers tend to stop at every <k> in a word.
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Re: The Letter H

Postby Sir Novelty Fashion » Mon May 07, 2012 3:34 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:Also, in RP (which is roughly the accent of the British upper and middle classes), many words beginning with an "h" have the "h" elided or sometimes voiced so it's less audible, in these cases, the words (such as "hotel" or "historic") do actually sound as if they begin with a vowel more than most fricative onset words.

I'm sure this is wrong. It is distinctly lower class to omit aitches (or indeed, hinsert them incorrectly).
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Re: The Letter H

Postby eSOANEM » Mon May 07, 2012 7:17 pm UTC

A while ago I went to the evolving English exhibit at the British library and they had quite a large section on h's (used as an example of U vs non-U speech). From what I recall, it was saying that, up until the early 1800s, it was as you described but then, certain words (primarily those seen as being derived from French (such as hotel and historic)) lost the h in U (upper class) speech. I think it concluded that, nowadays, it depends very much on the word in question and that this "list" for want of a better term, became the shibboleth rather than the omission of the h.

Also, from personal experience (having lived in a fairly working class town and now in a much more middle class one and frequently visiting my gran's village (which is almost exclusively upper middle/upper class)), it appears that the socialectal divide is roughly as follows:

upper class: h drop on certain words (lets call it $list)
upper middle class: h drop on some of the words on $list
middle class: h kept at the start of pretty much all words
lower middle class: h dropped on words outside $list (this is often an attempt to affect the upper class h-drop but done incorrectly)
working class: initial h dropped almost ubiquitously
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Re: The Letter H

Postby Sir Novelty Fashion » Tue May 08, 2012 6:34 pm UTC

Well, broadly speaking, yes, but I imagine the words in question were things like hautbois (modern oboe), rather than, say, "historic" or "hotel", which so far as I know maintain an 'h' in all but very non-U speech, and have been like that for at least a century (since we can probably say with some certainty that Bernard Shaw meant to reflect class differences in Pygmalion rather than change or lampoon them in this aspect).
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Re: The Letter H

Postby eSOANEM » Tue May 08, 2012 10:01 pm UTC

Ok, I've dug out the book from the evolving English exhibition.

They say that RP emerged towards the end of the eigteenth century and lists one of its key features as being the dropping of initial h's on specific words (as distinct from the general dropping of initial h's in cockney and addition of them in other words), the document they cite from 1854 (when U speech was starting to drop certain h's), only cites the following (and derivatives) as having a dropped h:

heir, honest, honour, herb, hospital, hostler, hour and humour.

it also notes that it wasn't long before herb, hospital and humour regained their h's.

The Cambridge guide to English usage also mentions how it was once fashionable to drop the h on hotel; a fashion which (along with that for historic and historian) has persisted in upper class speech (but not in almost all other sociolects).
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Re: The Letter H

Postby Eugo » Fri May 25, 2012 11:57 am UTC

Amazingly, Serbian [et al] has a similar history with the aitch. The clergy on both sides (i.e. Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim... both three then :)) used it heavily, being directly exposed to their internal languages - Latin, Greek, Church Slavic, Arabic, while the common people generally omitted it everywhere.

Except in Herzegovina and a few other places, which were found to have the otherwise best and cleanest grammar, pronunciation etc, and were promoted into the literary version of the language in mid-XIX century by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (Вук Стефановић Караџић). And it worked - a century later, pronunciation of the initial or trailing h in many words was the norm. The traces of the aitchless pronunciation can be found in many frozen words - last names like Ercegovac or Ajduković (from hajduk), or composite words where the first one was supposed to end with, or the second to start with a h, but it is not there. Some words derived from Greek origins, like chemistry, begin with a k in Croatian (kemija), because they came through Latin, and with a h in Serbian (hemija), because there they came straight from Greek. But then, history is istorija in Serbian, and povijest in Croatian. Go figure.

Nowadays, with the language being politically split into three or four, funny history plays on. Words where slapping an aitch prefix never worked now get one in Bosnian - rđa (rust) is hrđa there, and I have even seen hastal, which is a nonexistent word. This is a case of a returned borrowed word: from old Slavic sto[l] it became asztal in Hungarian, and then came back into Serbian [et al] as astal.
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