Thursday, 17 November 2011


Latin h tended to be dropped even in classical times, particularly in the middle of words. Thus nihil ‘nothing’ has an alternative form nīl, and mihi an alternative , while dē- plus habeo yields dēbeo ‘I owe’.

In initial position it was more tenacious, though even here by classical times it was only the educated classes who pronounced h. At Pompeii, destroyed 79 CE, there are inscriptional forms such as ic for hic ‘this (m.)’, and conversely hire for ire ‘to go’. In his poem about Arrius, Catullus pokes fun at hypercorrections such as hinsidias for insidias. Even the educated sometimes got confused: the letter h in the regular spelling of humor, humerus, and humidus is apparently unetymological.

The Romance languages inherited no phonetic h from Latin. The h that we pronounce nowadays in English words of Romance or Latin origin reflects a spelling pronunciation: habit, hesitate, horror and for most speakers humo(u)r, humid. As we all know, in various other Latin-derived words we have not restored h despite the spelling: there is no h in heir, hono(u)r, honest. In herb Brits and Americans agree to differ.

I was thinking about this because I have been noticing people pronouncing adhere, adherent, adhesion, adhesive without h, thus əˈdɪə etc. In LPD I give only forms that include həd ˈhɪə etc. In this I follow Daniel Jones’s EPD, though I notice that the Cambridge EPD now includes the h-less forms. Rightly so; on reflection, I think they are widespread enough to warrant inclusion, at least for BrE.

I have long been aware of the corresponding h-less pronunciation of abhor, which both LPD and the current EPD (but not the DJ EPD) include.

I don’t think there is any tendency towards a spelling-inspired restoration of h in words with the prefix ex-, as exhaust, exhibit, exhilarate, exhort, which all have -gˈz-. But exhale is a notable exception, always having -ksˈh-, and so sometimes is exhume.

You sometimes encounter the hypercorrect spelling exhorbitant for exorbitant. I can’t say I’ve ever heard the corresponding hypercorrect pronunciation, but presumably it exists.


  1. A useful survey. I've wondered about the prevalence of h-less adhere and co.

    As for exhorbitant — how ab(h)ominable!

  2. Does anyone say the H in "piranha"?

    George Orwell commented on the social significance of this letter in "The Road to Wigan Pier":

    "In almost any revolt the leaders would tend to be people who could pronounce their aitches."

    And about the sinking of the middle-classes into the working-class: "we have nothing to lose but our aitches."

    I wonder how words such as "honour" and "heir" survived with silent Hs during this period of militant opposition to H-dropping. I think that there is a funny parallel in that some words always have an H even in H-dropping accents. Has anyone ever heard the H in "alcohol" be dropped? (It's dropped in French of course, but I don't think it's ever dropped in English)

  3. But did the Romance languages lose /h/ in the Vulgar stage, or was it simply an unstable phoneme they inherited and lost separately? I ask because I was told the reason the otherwise phonemic Spanish orthography retains {h} is that at least some dialects retained /h/ at least until the time of reform/standardization.

  4. Also "vehicle". E.g. here from 5:50 on:

  5. Jack Windsor Lewis writes:

    It may be of intrest that apparently the first record of the existence in quite common use of aitch-free variants of *abhor* and *adhesive* by moderately educated British speakers was in my 1972 Concise Pronouncing Dictionary. The evidence I'd collected by then wasnt sufficient to warrant treating 'adhere' in the same way tho I consider Roach et al perfectly justified in doing so these days.

    In reply to Has anyone ever heard the H in "alcohol" be dropped? I suggest that a factor is that habitual aitch droppers wd be likely to shun the word and employ a synonym like 'booze'.

    As to Spanish, some of its aitches havent been omitted from their orthography coz of their disambiguative usefulness and others have come from other languages notably Arabic. The English educated classes' enthusiasm for aitches has extended to using them, where Spanish speakers dont, in borrowings like Alhambra, hacienda, Havana etc. Anyone who has any further appetite for this topic of 'Aitch Dropping and Restoring' cd go to my

  6. @ Ed - the h in 'piranha' isn't meant to be pronounced as /h/, /nh/ in Portuguese palatalises the n, like ñ in Spanish. As the phoneme doesn't really exist in English it's generally just ignored.

  7. The Spanish and French stories with /h/ are more complicated. All lprimary /h/ in inherited words was lost before the dialects of Proto-Romance had become separate languages, as John says. But Spanish acquired a secondary /h/ from initial /f/, as in Spanish horno 'oven' < VL FORNU. (This sound change didn't operate before /w/, so fuerte < FORTIS remained unchanged.) This /h/ continued to be spelled f right through the Golden Age; only after it was finally lost did the spelling consistently change to h, which had always been a silent letter. There are passages in Don Quixote which make it clear that the Don still said /f/, but Sancho's Spanish had changed to /h/, causing him to misunderstand his master. Of course, Spanish continues to have many initial-/f/ borrowings.

    In French, /h/ appeared as a loan phoneme in Frankish words as well as hybrids like haut < ALTU + something related to English high and German hoch. It too vanished, but served and still served to block liaison in both these words and certain Latin borrowings (as opposed to inherited words from Latin), thus les heros 'the heroes' is properly pronounced /leero/, and to say /lezero/ makes the phrase homonymous with les zeros!

  8. I forgot to mention that for me inhale and exhale have initial stress, and therefore the /h/ is preserved. However, this may be idiolectal: certainly the Big Four AmE dictionaries all show final stress, some recording the /h/-free pronunciation and others not.

  9. John Cowan wrote:

    [...]thus les heros 'the heroes' is properly pronounced /leero/, and to say /lezero/ makes the phrase homonymous with les zeros![...]

    The French word héro has a strange singularity: it is the only French word that I know of with aspirate h (blocking liaison) in the masculine form le héro, and mute h in the feminine form l'héroïne.

  10. Sorry for my spelling mistake!

    le héros ; les héros