Humiliated H

Published 6th June 2011
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Humiliated H

Poor letter H. The oddball of the alphabet. Like a child that is picked on in the playground. It has been pulled and pushed around, belittled, jeered or simply ignored, unable to equal its alphabet peers.

The problem with H is its sound – it just doesn’t fit in. Technically, it’s neither a vowel nor a consonant. Since its production involves neither the vocal cords, the throat, tongue, teeth or lips, but simply the expelling of breath. It is perhaps apt, then, that in the Roman alphabet this letter was called “Ha,”. Seemingly mocking its inadequate status.

It might surprise you to know that this letter is the ninth-most-often-used letter in English print. Yet in an analysis of spoken English, the sound “h” ranks low, accounting for less than 1.5 percent of English speech sounds. This is because H sees most of its action in written letter pairings, such as SH or CH. If you look back you’ll see that H has been used in this way 38 times so far in this article. Can you spot them all? So we could argue that it is really just a device used to change the sound of letters around it, and could easily be replaced by an accent of some sort.

Even when the sound should be pronounced it often isn’t, whether due to laziness, accent or just general trends in language. Once abundant in early Latin, the sound “h” has gradually disappeared from Latin’s descendant tongues. In modern Spanish and French, H is an empty shell, still written in words like honor and honneur. But never pronounced. Italian spelling omits H entirely.

appy ome?

English has experienced loss of opening “h” to a lesser and greater degree. Lesser in official pronunciations and spellings, and greater in everyday speech. As a result, the pronunciation of an opening H has come to designate social class. Take the famous cockney accent as an example, where its most striking aspect is the loss of the initial H. “I’m ‘appy to be at ‘ome”. Endorsement for the idea that a missing H could be linked with the working-class can be found in famous films. My Fair Lady and Oliver, for example! In class-bound Britain of the 19th century, there was even a British adjective “H-less” or “aitchless” referring condescendingly to a person of labor-class background.

It is not surprising then that in the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, cockney flower vendor Eliza had to perfect her pronunciation of the sentence. “In Hampshire, Hereford, and Hartford, hurricanes hardly ever happen”. This was in order to move her way up the social ranks.

So is it really obsolete and easily replaceable or does the very nature of its diminution mean that it has become a marker of superiority? Maybe it’s getting its own back after all…

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