Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | January 9, 2009

Ask The Linguist: The Story Of H, by Dr. Jon Aske

I know in our linguistics class you taught us about the origin of the “h” at the beginning of words in Spanish, but I could use a refresher on this.  My students often ask me, “if the H is silent at the beginning of a word in Spanish, then why is it there at all?”  If I recall, there is a direct connection to the Latin F, but other than that, I have to admit that my memory is blurred.  Another interesting story that a colleague of mine was very interested in is the history of the tilde….but this is a story that I remember well (the saving of the ink, instead of writing two consecutive n’s)…and I suppose this does not pertain to etymology per se, but it is an interesting fact nonetheless that others might like to know.
—Jessica Stryhalaleck, MAT-Spanish Student

Orthography is supposed to represent the pronunciation of words. That is the (ideal) principle behind alphabetic writing systems: A sound is represented by a symbol—and vice versa. However, orthography doesn’t follow that principle all the time for a variety of reasons. The main one is that once the spelling of words is fixed, as happened for English and Spanish a few hundred years ago, it tends to reflect the pronunciation of earlier times, although pronunciation is in a constant state of change.

Another major reason for orthographies not being perfect is, of course, dialectal variation: some dialects pronounce things differently from others and if you want to have a single spelling for words, you will end up with mismatches of spelling-pronunciation. Think about it.

The case of the letter H is very interesting indeed. The letter H existed in the Latin alphabet, from which both the Spanish and the English alphabets derive. In early Latin it represented the same sound as that of the letter h in English words like house. However, by the time Latin became the language of the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania) it had ceased to be pronounced (but continued to be written out of “habit”). In the early Middle Ages the Romance languages (Spanish/Castilian included) developed out of spoken Latin and by 1,000 years ago they were being written down. Interestingly, early Spanish did not write the letter H, since it was not pronounced. So in Spanish you wrote onor, ‘honor’, from Latin HONOR (I write Latin word in caps because Latin only had caps).

Then at some point the letter F in Spanish started to be pronounced like the letter H had been pronounced in Ancient Latin. So Lat. FARINA ‘flour’ was pronounced /harina/. Still it continued to be written with an F. (This F to H change had exceptions, as in frente ‘front’, and fuego ‘fire’.)

Much later Spanish started importing many cultured words from written Latin back into Spanish (‘learned words’), and some came with the letter F, such as FORMA ‘form’. So the F letter now represented two sounds: F and H. The word FORMA ‘form’ could be pronounced /horma/ or
/forma/. So a spelling reform brought about the new spelling
horma (and harina, etc.) for words that had the original F that had changed to an H sound.

But eventually, however, the sound H in words like harina ceased to be pronounced altogether, much as it had happened to the same sound in Latin much earlier (H is an unstable sound). So the new H became a silent letter, much as it had happened in Classical Latin.

Spanish also imported many learned words around this time from written Latin which had an H in them that had not been pronounced even in Latin since very early times, such as the word historia ‘history’.

Spanish spelling also introduced some H’s where there had never been any. For instance in the the words huevo ‘egg’ (adj. oval), from Lat. OVUM, and hueso ‘bone’ (adj. óseo), from Lat. OSSUM. First the Latin letter O came to be pronounced UE in words like these. So these words were pronounced
/webo/ and /weso/. But Latin didn’t have a letter W. The letter V served both for the vowel U and the consonant V (or, rather, B, in Spanish). Thus scribes decided to write these words with an initial H to indicate that
hueso, for instance, was pronounced /weso/ and not
/beso/.

Also, when word-initial G- stopped being pronounced in words like GELO (hielo, ‘ice’) and GERMANO (hermano, ‘brother’), Spanish scribes decided to put a silent H there as a placeholder for the sound ([g])that had been there and was not pronounced anymore.

And that is basically the story of the letter H. In Romance languages (those derived form Latin) H is not pronounced, but it is often written (not so in Italian, which got rid of most of them). It is written in French, but not pronounced. Since English borrowed many words from French in the Middle Ages, English too has many silent h’s (honor, honest), alongside pronounced h’s (he, home) in words of Germanic origin. ¦

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