Posted by on Sep 17, 2013 in Interesting Facts | 0 comments

238-letter-h

The English language was never really created, but rather cobbled together from various sources. It is a Frankenstein creation, stealing a bit from French here, tacking it on with Latin there, sprinkling in some German and whatever else. If you look closely, you can see the stitch marks and scars from past operations.

Exhibit A: The Letter H.

We pronounce it as ‘aitch‘ which comes from Old French. They got that from Late Latinaccha‘, though in Early Latin the letter was called `ha`. The curious thing about H is the nature of its on-again off-again relationship with words. In most cases, the letter disappeared, either audibly or entirely, for centuries before making a big sweeping comeback.

These words took a historical journey from a Latin birth, through a French adolescence, before taking over the world in their English form. It seems the majority of words were too cool for H in that middle French phase of their life. Latin ‘historia‘ became French ‘estoire‘ before evolving into English ‘history‘… dropping and regaining the H along the way. This pattern is fairly consistent throughout the dictionary…

Hierarchia -> Ierarchie -> Hierarchy.

Habitus -> Abit -> Habit.

Hippopotamus -> Ypotame -> Hippopotamus.

In some case the letter H stuck through the years, but became silent in the process, as in the word honor, from the French… honor. If the French had dropped the H, I suspect we might be pronouncing it in that word today. The Latin herba restored itself from French erbe, but the English H remained silent for centuries. It wasn’t until relatively modern times that herb has been pronounced with an H.

As you can see, while English grew in the Middle Ages, H was coming back with a vengeance. So much so that the letter over-stepped its bounds in some cases. The Latin ermita became the French eremite, and it wasn’t until it hit English that the word became hermit. The H had no precedence.

One remnant of this transition can be seen in proper British grammatical rules involving the letter. On the BBC you will hear them talk about “an historical event” rather than the American style “a historical event“. While the H of history was re-attached, it is a rather soft pronunciation… barely there. So ‘an‘ is used such that the words won’t run together. The American pronunciation of history kicks things off a lot more forcefully, so it becomes unnecessary.

They always say that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, and this is an example of why. Any time you ask “why is that word pronounced that way” it takes an entire history lesson to explain, and depending on which turn it took in 1307, the rules are inconsistent and contradictory. So to English students around the world, I say… ‘bonne chance!