pronunciation: Silent "h" in the beginning of the word

Discussion in 'English Only' started by pink_devil, Feb 26, 2010.

  1. pink_devil Member

    Hello everyone,

    For quite some time now I've been wondering- is there a certain rule for the silent "h" in the beginning of the word? Why do we say honour [ ˈɒn.ər ], but home[həʊm] ? And many more, of course. I can't figure it out myself and I think the ones where the "h" isn't pronounced are exceptions?

  2. sound shift

    sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    I don't think there'a rule about this. These words come from many sources, so unfortunately you have to learn them one by one.
  3. cropje_jnr

    cropje_jnr Senior Member

    Canberra, Australia
    English - Australia

    We are often taught that it is primarily words of Romance origins that are pronounced with a silent 'h', whereas words of Germanic origins tend to have a 'h' which is not silent.

    Not being an expert on the question, I can't confirm to what extent this is actually the case. Otherwise, I'm not aware of any golden rule either.
  4. pink_devil Member

    Cheers a lot!
  5. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    There's no rule, but there's only a small number: honour, honest, heir, hour and in AmE herb, and their derivatives (honourable, hourly etc.). But [h] in heritage though it's related to heir. Some speakers don't have an [h] before [ju] in human, humour.

    And of course commonly in the unstressed functional words such as have and him, as in the quote above.

    The history of [h] is uncertain, but it probably largely died out in standard English then was reintroduced from the spelling (in the 1700s). The exceptions above are ones where the reintroduction didn't go through.
  6. Arrius

    Arrius Senior Member

    English, UK
    Home is a Germanic word and a cognate of German Heim, Swedish hemma which all mean the same and begin with pronounced aitches, whereas honour (AE honor) is from French honneur in which the aitch is mute. The same thing applies to hate (German Hass, Dutch haat, Swedish hat), and honest with a silent H from French honnête (cf. Italian onesto). But this is a rough guide that is sometimes affected by fashion: most anglophones now talk about a hotel (French hôtel from hôte, which confusingly means both guest and host), whereas the minority including myself still say an hotel with an unpronounced H. And honourable, maybe 150 years, had a pronounced H even used in the House of Commons ("Would the honourable gentleman care to explain his last remark?"). Of course, London Cockneys in particular often drop their aitches where the upper classes pronounce them and, rather perversely, put them in where they don't belong, which is no model for foreign speakers but may influence changes in the pronunciation of the intial H in English. Though you are a speaker of a slav language, you appear to know Spanish, a romance language, so this hint (which I now see has already been touched on by others) may be of some slight use.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2010
  7. pink_devil Member

    Great, thanks everyone! Yeah, I know in Spanish the rule states that the initial "h" is dropped; and that's convenient because it is a golden rule and you don't get confused.
    So, seems like the ones with the Roman origins are with an unpronounced "h" and the others with a sound one.

    Yes, the first time I heard "often" sounded a bit posh and strange :D

    And how about the combination of "mb"- is the rule that when they are at the end of the word, only m is pronounced-otherwise both?
    (comb, dumb, numb, but scramble, jumbo)
  8. mcorazao Member

    Austin, TX
    English, USA
    Minor observation/correction: Latin did pronounce the h sound whereas in the Western Romance languages that came from Latin the h became silent (this is not the case in Romanian, though). So in words borrowed from French, the h is often silent because that is how it is in French (e.g. homage, honor, hors d'oeuvre). In words borrowed from Latin, the h is typically verbalized (e.g. homo, hostile, hibernate).

    Interestingly there is also a history of "correction" to Latin. For example, in Middle English there was a word "abit" borrowed from Old French (the h sound at the beginning was not only silent but not even written). This was eventually changed to "habit" which was closer to the original Latin (with the h not silent).

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