Q: Is there a linguistic relationship between the missing “h” sound in French and Eliza Doolittle’s aitch-dropping in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady?
A: The English have been dropping their aitches in speech and in spelling since Anglo-Saxon times, but the process accelerated as Old English gave way to Middle English in the 11th century.
Is French responsible for this “h”-dropping in English?
Well, Anglo-Norman, spoken by the Francophile upper classes in England for several hundred years after the Norman Conquest, is responsible for some of the “h” loss in Middle English, but not for Eliza’s cockney “h”-dropping.
Anglo-Norman, as well as Old French and Middle French, clearly influenced the absence of the “h” sound in some loanwords of Latin origin in Middle English, such as “honor,” “honest,” and “hour.”
But it’s uncertain whether Anglo-Norman, a Romance language formed from various French dialects, is responsible for any of the “h”-dropping in Middle English words of Anglo-Saxon origin.
One problem for linguists is determining how much of the “h”-dropping in Old English and Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech.
Some linguists have argued that the increase in “h”-dropping in Middle English texts was merely the result of errors by scribes who spoke Anglo-Norman, with its silent “h.”
But other linguists have said that the “h”-dropping in Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech, and that this was the result of the inherent weakness and instability of the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the letter “h.”
Today, “h”-dropping is associated with the cockney speech of working-class Londoners, but this loss of the “h” sound in words like “hammer,” “hat,” “house,” and “behind” is common in most regions of England, according to linguists.
In fact, “h” dropping is not unknown in Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent. In addition to dropping the “h” sound in the Gallic loanwords mentioned above, RP speakers used to drop it in “historic,” resulting in uses like “an ’istoric.”
RP speakers now pronounce all the letters of “historic,” but they’ve kept the indefinite article “an,” even though the article “a” would be standard before a word beginning with a sounded “h,” the phonetician John C. Wells writes in Accents of English (1982).
In A Course in Phonetics (1982), the phonetician Peter Ladefoged says “h” acts “like a consonant, but from an articulatory point of view is simply the voiceless counterpart of the following vowel.”
“It does not have a specific place of articulation,” he writes, “and its manner of articulation is the same as that of a vowel, only the state of the glottis is different.” (The glottis is made up of the vocal cords and the opening between them.)
As the linguist Larry Trask explains, “h” is “a very weak consonant, almost the last trace of anything we can call a consonant at all, and it disappears very easily.”
In classical times, Trask points out in a contribution to the Linguist List, the “h” sound “was completely gone in popular Latin speech by the first century BC, though it may have been retained for a while by a few pedants.”
“The Romance languages sometimes continue to write this long-lost /h/ in their orthographies,” he adds, “but this is purely for old times’ sake.”
However, the “h” sound was alive and well in Old English, according to linguists who have reconstructed Anglo-Saxon speech based on things like the rhyme in verse, the spelling of Latin loanwords, and related words in other Germanic languages.
The letter “h” had several pronunciations in Old English, which was spoken from about the 5th through the 11th centuries:
● In front of vowels, “h” sounded much as it does today.
● In front of consonants, it had a breathy sound.
● After a vowel pronounced at the front of the mouth (like “e” or “i”), “h” sounded like the “ch” in the German ich.
● After a vowel pronounced at the back of the mouth (like “a” or “o”), it sounded like the “ch” in the Scottish loch.
The use of “h” before consonants at the beginning of words began dying out in Old English and Middle English texts, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
For example, the noun “ring” (the finger ornament), was hringae, hringiae, etc. in early Old English, but came to be spelled ringce, ryngc, ring, and so on in later Old English.
The noun “nut” (the seed) was originally hnut- or hnute- (in compounds) in Anglo-Saxon writing, and then nut-, nute, etc., in later Old English.
The adjective “loud” was hlúd in Old English and then lud(e), loude, lowd(e), and so on in Middle English.
The “h”-dropping in Old English texts presumably reflected the loss of the “h” sound in speech, according to phoneticians, linguists who specialize in phonetics.
However, scholars have debated the cause of the “h” loss in Middle English writing.
The 19th-century philologist Walter William Skeat attributed the loss of the letter “h” in Middle English writing to spelling errors by Anglo-Norman scribes.
But James Milroy, a 20th-century linguist, believed the scribes were representing the “h”-dropping in speech.
Milroy, who exhaustively studied “h”-dropping in England, writes in the Cambridge History of the English Language that in certain regions of medieval England “the syllable initial [h] was not present, or only variably present,” in speech.
Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, raises an interesting point on the Linguist List about contemporary “h” dropping in working-class speech in England.
Although the “h” sound in words of Anglo-Saxon origin (like “hair,” “heart,” “harm,” and “hit”) is “completely gone in the vernacular speech of almost all of England,” Trask writes, there’s no sign of such “h”-dropping in North America.
(The “h”-less US pronunciation of “herb” is not an American version of cockney “h”-dropping. It’s the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the Old French loanword was usually spelled “erbe.” As the OED notes, in British speech “the h was mute until the 19th cent.”)
Why is cockney-style “h”-dropping common among the English, but unknown among Americans?
In Accents of English, Wells, a professor emeritus at University College London, suggests that the American colonists didn’t take such “h”-dropping with them to the New World because they left before its widespread appearance in England.
“The fact that H dropping is unknown in North America strongly suggests that it arose in England only well after the American colonies were founded,” he writes.
Although “h”-dropping did occur in Old English and Middle English, as we’ve said, it apparently wasn’t common enough in England to get the attention of language commentators and novelists until the latter half of the 18th century.
In Talking Proper (1995), Lynda Mugglestone, an Oxford historian of the English language, says the first language writer to complain about “h”-dropping was the actor-educator Thomas Sheridan.
In A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), Sheridan criticizes “the omission of the aspirate in many words by some, and in most by others.”
And in Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture (1786), a pronunciation and spelling guide, James Elphinston condemns the “lowliness” and “impropriety” of pronunciations like “uman,” “umor,” and “umbel” (for “human,” “humor,” and “humble”).
Later, Lindley Murray’s influential English Grammar (1795) describes the “h” sound as a requirement for “educated” speech, and blames “the negligence of tutors” and “the inattention of pupils” for its loss.
As for fiction, Winifred Jenkins, a maid in Tobias Smollett’s last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), drops her aitches on and off, referring to “heart” as “art,” and “harm” as “arm.”
By the mid-19th century, working-class characters routinely dropped their aitches in novels. As Uriah Heep says in David Copperfield (1850): “I am well aware that I am the umblest person going.”
(Although “humble” was the standard spelling of the word in Dickens’s day, its original spelling in Middle English was “umble.”)
We can’t conclude this discussion of “h”-dropping without mentioning the many Old English words that began with “hw” but now begin with “wh,” including hwæt (“what”), hwanne (“when”), hwǽr, (“where”), hwæs (“whose”), hwā (“who”), hwí (“why”), hwelc (“which”), hwæðer (“whether”), and so on.
The OED says the “normal Old English spelling hw was generally preserved in early Middle English,” and the “modern spelling wh is found first in regular use in the Ormulum,” a 12th-century religious work in which whillc is used for “which.”
“In Old English the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath,” according to the dictionary. (A voiced bilabial consonant is one in which the vocal cords vibrate and the air flow is restricted by the lips.)
Interestingly, the words that began with “hw” in Old English have given us two types of “wh” words today: those in which the “w” sound predominates (“why,” “where,” “when,” etc.) and those in which the “h” sound predominates (“who,” “whole,” “whose”).
In case you’re wondering, “whore” was originally spelled hóre in Old English, and retained its “h” pronunciation when the “wh” spelling of the word arose in the 16th century.
An 1830 edition of Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary gives two pronunciations, “höör, or höre,” and adds: “If there can be a polite pronunciation of this vulgar word, it is the first of these, rhyming with poor.”