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An ‘istory of dropped aitches

The practice has been among us since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

It might seem like a modern complaint, but, says PETER TRUDGILL, this practice has been going on since the Ancient Greeks

The sound represented by our Latin-alphabet letter H has had a sorry history in the languages of Europe over the last 2,000 years or so.

Perhaps the decline started in Greek. The Ancient Greek words for ‘six’ and ‘seven’ were heks and heptá, respectively, as reflected in several modern English words which were borrowed from Ancient Greek, such as hexagonal, ‘six sided’ and heptathlon, ‘an athletic contest featuring seven different events’. But in the Modern Greek words for these two numerals, éksi and eftá, the h’s have gone; probably starting around 200 BC, all Greek h’s were dropped.

About 500 years later the same process started happening in Latin, and as a result also in the languages which eventually developed out of Latin. The French word which descended from Latin hominem, ‘man’, is spelt homme but, unlike in Latin, the h is not sounded. The same is true of the Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese words for ‘man’, home, hombre and homem – they have no initial h sound. And the Romanian and Italian words for this word, om and uomo, do not even have an h in the spelling.

Having lost Latin-based h, French then went on to lose h all over again. Starting in the 5th century, what is now northern France was invaded and became controlled by Germanic tribes from the other side of the Rhine, mostly Franks (which is why France is called France). These Germanic speakers eventually abandoned their own language and gradually adopted the Late Latin/Old French of the subjugated majority population of Romanised native Gaulish Celts. But a good number of Germanic words made their way into Old French in the process.

It is not a coincidence that many of these borrowed Germanic words had military connotations. Some contained the Germanic consonant h, and this sound therefore now reappeared in French in words such as heaume, ‘helmet’, havre, ‘harbour’, haine, ‘hate’, and honte, ‘shame’. But then this h also eventually disappeared, although it left one trace behind.

In modern French, when the definite article le, ‘the’, is placed in front of Latin-derived h-initial nouns such as homme, it is reduced to l’ – l’homme – as it is for words beginning with a vowel, such as l’amour; but for Germanic-origin h-initial words, le is not contracted – ‘the helmet’ is le heaume.

The h-dropping story then continued a few hundred years later across the Channel in England. In the late Old English of the end of the first millennium, the h at the beginning of words like hring, hlaf and hnutu was dropped, giving us modern English ring, loaf, and nut. During the 1300s and 1400s, h also started to disappear in words such as dohtor, broht, niht, sih, at least in the south of England, giving us modern daughter, brought, night, sight, where the consonant h is ‘remembered’ in the gh spellings but is lost from the pronunciation.

By the 18th century, h had also started being dropped before w, so that whales (Old English hwælas) and which (Old English hwilc) came to be pronounced identically to Wales and witch in many parts of England. And the from the late 1700s onwards, in the local accents of many parts of England and Wales, initial h went missing from words like hut, house, hammer, with the result that pairs such as ill and hill, edge and hedge are now pronounced the same. Some speakers do this consistently, others are variable, and some speakers do not do it at all, particularly those on Tyneside and in rural East Anglia.

It is this last phenomenon – the pronunciation of hedge as the same as edge – that is generally referred to these days as ‘dropping your h’s’. But in actual fact, this is simply the final stage of a long process of h-loss which has been going on for very many generations.