Thursday, 28 October 2010

a letter that can give you an 'ell of an 'eadache

'Arriet: "Wot toime his the next troine fer 'Ammersmith?“
Clerk: "Due now.“
'Arriet: Course Oi dawn‘t now, stoopid, or Oi wouldn‘t be harskin‘ yer!“
This joke appeared, if I remember correctly, in Punch.

Dropping one's aitches - a cardinal sin for many -  was and still is a shibboleth of seemingly incorrect pronunciation. Hundreds of thousands of native speakers of English eschew the /h/ consistently, many more omit its pronunciation most of the time. Although harm and arm, hand and and, heart and art become homophones, we still understand those people due to the redundancy of language. Many people living in England believe that dropping one's aitches is a sign of low education - a social stigma. The presence of /h/ in word-initial position is believed by many people to be related to educatedness and its lack to lower class and ignorance. For a detailed description of this socio-phonetic phenomenon see Lynda Mugglestone's book Talking Proper of 2003 (2nd ed.).

credit: Richard Howell
Heir, honest, honesty, honour, hour are pronounced without /h/ by almost every Brit and American with at least a decent amount of education.
With hotel usage is devided: LPD 3 lists both pronunciations - with and without /h/, as does EPD17; ODP withholds the h-less pronunciation. OED 1989 has both versions with the h-less one marked 'old-fashioned'. OED online in its draft revision of 2010 indicates /ˌhəʊˈtɛl/, /hə(ʊ)ˈtɛl/ only (obviously under the influence of Clive Upton).

Historical is sometimes pronounced without /h/ when preceded by an as in
- an historical novel,
- an historical account,
- an historical outline.

The pronunciation of the letter <h> is changing as well. LPD3 indicates /eɪʧ/ as the standard General British form and marks /heɪʧ/ as "BrE [= British English] non-RP". In his opinion poll the author John C Wells found that 24% of the British English speakers born since 1982 prefer /heɪʧ/; so it seems to be spreading.

Have, has and had as auxiliaries frequently lose their /h/ in colloquial speech as do the pronouns he, his, him, her in unstressed positions.

There are other droppings such as
w-dropping (or wyn-dropping),
s-dropping and - not to be forgotten -
bird dropping.
This list is far from being complete!


  1. Jack-of-all-trades28 October 2010 at 20:58

    There is also "hostler" /'ɒslə/, but this word is now (I think) more usually written "osler".

    And "heiress".

    And the derivatives of "honour" ("Brutus is an 'onourable man").

    The word "herb" is /hɜːb/ in RP, but usually /ɜːb/ in General American. The personal name "Herb" is always /h-/, even in America. See LPD.

    In Walter Ripman's "English Phonetics", an interesting book that records the pronunciation of before the last war (of the thirties? of the forties?), I find these remarks (p. 93):

    " In comparatively recent times the "h" has come to be pronounced in "herb", "hospital", "humble". A fair number (of the older generation) still pronounce the "h" of "humour". Some drop the "h" of "hotel" always; others occasionally, when the word is not initial ".

    LPD gives only /h-/, both for British and for American English, for "hospital" and "humble". As for "humo(u)r", it gives the aitch-less pronunciation as a regional British form ("BrE non-RP"). /'ju:mə/ was "old-fashioned" in 1967, according to A. C. Gimson (EPD, 13th edition).

    For Ripman, "honorarium" is an exception to the rule that in the derivates of "honour" the "h-" is mute. LPD, again, gives only an aitch-less pronunciation for this word. EPD 1967 gives /ɒn-/ and /hɒn-/ (in this order).

  2. @Jack-of-all-trades:
    Thanks for your detailed comments.

  3. Jack-of-all-trades28 October 2010 at 22:40

    (Instead of " "osler" ", in the 2nd line, read
    " "ostler" ".
    Instead of "derivates", in the antepenultimate line, read "derivatives".)