On H-dropping again

Feb 6, 2012 by

In an earlier post, I mentioned H-dropping as one of the characteristic features of Cockney, the lower class variety of English from the streets of London’s East End. Recall Professor Higgins’ complaints: “Hear them down in Soho square, /Dropping “h’s” everywhere. / Speaking English anyway they like.…” Writers who try to imitate such pronunciation in writing (a phenomenon known as graphic dialect) usually write an apostrophe where the “h” is being dropped. Thus, Eliza Dolittle’s pronunciation of Professor Higgins’ name comes out as ‘enry ‘iggins. But while prescriptivists like Professor Higgins tend to stigmatize the phenomenon of h-dropping as a low-class, substandard feature, the same process played an important role in the development of other languages as well.

Consider, for example, Latin and Romance languages that developed from it. As it turns out, the weakening of the “h” in pronunciation started already in the Classical Latin period.Our evidence for that comes from inscriptions, where people who were not professional scribes would often misspell h-words without an “h”, for example onorem instead of the “proper” Latin spelling honorem. Evidence from Vulgar Latin of a later period, for example from the Appendix Probi, written some time between 200-320 CE), indicates that “h” was not pronounced. Therefore, the author of the Appendix Probi admonishes:

  • adhuc non aduc ‘so far’
  • hostiae non ostiae ‘sacrificial animals’ (the English word host in the sense of ‘eucharistic wafer’ is related)

While Latin prescriptivists of both the Classical and the Vulgar Latin periods tried to re-instill the “h” in pronunciation, they’ve obviously failed. As is well-known, the letter “h” in modern Romance languages, inherited from Latin, is not pronounced, so words like the Spanish hombre and the French homme (both meaning ‘man’) start with a vowel sound. Italian got read of the “h” in spelling as well: hence, uomo ‘man’.

English too has a remnant of that unpronounced Romance “h”: this is why the letter “h” is not pronounced in such words as hour, honor, honest, and heir — these words are borrowings from French, and in French the “h” is written but not pronounced. English borrowed both the spelling with the “h” and the pronunciation without it. In contrast, in native Anglo-Saxon words, the letter “h” is pronounced, as in happy and hot. However (see, “h” is pronounced here!), the pattern concerning the pronunciation of “h” is not as simple as the distinction between French loanwords and native Anglo-Saxon words. In particular, in some French loanwords “h” is pronounced (e.g. hostel, hotel, and haste). This is so because of the influence of spelling (also known as “spelling pronunciation”). Yet other words originating from French can be pronounced both with or without “h”, as in herb, human, humor, and humble.

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