Q: My brother’s name is “Hubert.” My son’s name is “Hugh.” Am I making a mistake when I say their names without pronouncing the initial “H”? What about “hue,” “humid,” “Hume”?
A: The short answer is that the “h” is usually pronounced in these words, so “Hubert” sounds like HYOO-bert, “Hugh” and “hue” like HYOO, “humid” like HYOO-mid, and “Hume” like HYOOM.
But quite a few people don’t pronounce the initial letter, so “Hubert” then sounds like YOO-bert, “Hugh” and “hue” like YOO, “humid” like YOO-mid, and “Hume” like YOOM.
And the people who do pronounce the “h” do it in all sorts of ways, from a very aitchy “h” to a whisper of aitchiness that can barely be heard.
Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).
All of the standard dictionaries we checked say the proper names you asked about (“Hubert,” Hugh,” “Hume”) should be pronounced with the “h” sounded.
But the dictionaries differ about pronouncing “hue” and “humid,” as well as “huge,” “human,” and similar words.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, lists only one pronunciation for each of these words: with the “h” sounded.
But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also includes “h”-less pronunciations of “humid,” “huge,” and “human.” And the other standard dictionaries we checked generally agree with M-W.
In its entries for “humid,” “huge,” and “human,” the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary says the words are “often” heard with “h”-less pronunciations.
Interestingly, English adopted all three of these words from early versions of French where the “h” wasn’t sounded.
In the case of “human,” which comes from Latin via Middle French and Anglo-Norman, “the origin of the vocalism is unclear,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED notes that the word begins with an “h” in some Romance languages (for example, humano in Spanish, where it’s not pronounced) and without it in others (umano in Italian).
So are you making a mistake by not pronouncing the “h” in the names of your brother and your son?
Yes, according to standard dictionaries. But a lot of people do it. And as Alexander Pope observed, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
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