H is for Honesty

While listening to the radio today, the DJ introduced the song “Honesty,” by Billy Joel. Only, being a French speaker, he pronounced the H as we do in words like house and happy. This might seem odd though, because the letter H is always silent in French.

Still, it’s quite understandable that, even taking that into account, a French speaker would pronounce the H in honest. It’s an example of what’s known as hypercorrection. This is a common occurrence in language, and involves applying a grammatical or phonological rule, assumed to universal or almost universal, when it actually doesn’t apply. A French speaker, relatively knowledgeable about English, might think, Ah, now these English always pronounce the letter H, no? So though in my language the H in honnête is silent, in the English honest(y), they pronounce the H, no?

But of course, the word honest, like hour, is of French origin, and we therefore retain the silent H (this is also true of herb in American English, though not in British English, in which the H is pronounced). Hypercorrection is also probably why Liam Gallagher’s name is pronounced by some French speakers to sound like lie, as I wrote about before, based on the assumption it sounds like Brian.

You can see how the letter H can be hard to deal with in English for speakers of Romance languages. Generally, if it appears at all in Romance languages, it’s silent, though it can sound like R in Portuguese. It can also perform a function in digraphs and trigraphs (clusters of two or three letters with individual sounds). In French and Italian, for example, placing an H after a C or G changes the soft vowel sound to the hard one.

When I was in school and learning the Irish language, I was also aware that the letter H was useful, but didn’t really function as a consonant in its own right, just like in the Romance languages. It has this special name, an séimhiú, and is involved in a process known as lenition. This involves the changing of consonant sounds to make pronunciation easier (in this case by adding an H).

The letter H has always been a little out of the loop in Latin-based languages. It had forebears in early forms of Semitic and Greek, but over time it began to lose its own distinct consonant sound in Romance languages. It therefore still exists in these languages, but in a reduced role, either silent, or helping other letters to change their sound.

In Germanic languages though, H has continued to exist as a standard consonant with its own aspirated sound, perfectly suitable for beginning words with. Therefore those used to H being silent can get into trouble when they encounter an H at the beginning of an English word. And while i appreciate the efforts of the DJ who was at least aware that it’s usually pronounced in English, the more common error for Romance speakers is not to pronounce it at all, like in their native tongues.

I’ve ‘urt my ‘ead, so now I ‘ave to go the ‘ospital!

That’s a stereotypical and exaggerated of how someone might drop their H‘s. It’s generally not a big problem, but occasionally it can lead to confusion:

I (h)ate broccoli.

For Italians, angry and hungry can be a nightmare. The language doesn’t allow for the same distinction between the two vowel sounds as English, so if someone also drops the H, the words can sound virtually identical:

I ate/hate broccoli because I was angry/hungry.

I’ve also noticed the occasional French speaker adding an H sound to the beginning of words which don’t even begin with an H. Saying hair and harm instead of air and arm seem to be the two most common examples. I don’t think this is a case of hypercorrection though. Rather, I think they’ve just heard the words harm and hair and accidentally misuse them, perhaps with at the back of their minds the general English trend of having an aspirated H sound where in French the H is silent.

So you can see how a simple little letter like H can cause so many headaches for learners of English. To show I’m not picking on anyone though, tomorrow I’ll look at how it can be quite a contentious letter for native speakers too…

20 thoughts on “H is for Honesty

  1. My favourite example I use when teaching this is “I (h)ate your dog” (adapted from a line from Willie the Groundskeeper). The students tend not to forget that graphic image.

    A point about the Portuguese ‘H’. It sounding like ‘R’ is an example of hypercorrection. In fact, in Brazilian Portuguese the ‘R’ at the start or middle of a word is pronounced like ‘H’ (well, somewhere between ‘H’ and the Spanish ‘J’).

    The biggest concern I have with this is that the DJ subjected his listeners to Billy Joel. How torturous.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Blimey, we really make it tricky for English learners dont we. Sadly, I am from Essex and our cockney accent drops most H’s. I have a friend from spain and when she comes over to Essex she is constantly confused at what we are saying. We certainly make it harder for them!

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  3. My learners are used to the H being pronounced in their native language, which means they usually get it right, with exceptions like honest and honour. Then we get into the whole “a” or “an” discussion and why some people insist on “an” even in words in which the H is clearly pronounced!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I never even thought of the fact that in honest you don’t pronounce the ‘h’ and in hotel you do… but when I read your post now it suddenly seems like a major problem 😀
    Mind, I can get ‘hangry’ you know… you’d better get out of my way then 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow! I didn’t know about any of this! So much information I just learned. Being (mostly) stuck in the U.S., I’ve been sheltered from all these interesting language quirks! I’m so glad I learned this. It might help me better understand foreigners one day! Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Being from Yorkshire (the northern part) we are steroetyped into dropping the ‘H’ in many words. ‘Owever, I do believe that is more the west and south, more than the north, to do that. It is a funny letter and interesting to hear a French person pronouncing our English word, over their general dropping of……

    Liked by 1 person

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