H 

Lots of British English speakers never pronounce /h/, others pronounce it sometimes, but nobody pronounces it all the time, in other words, it’s a grey area.

So what is H? When is it silent? Is the letter ‘Haitch’ or ‘Aitch‘? Oh, and do we really need it, onestly?


/h/

If you’re going to pronounce H, imagine you are steaming up a mirror /h/.  It’s a voiceless fricative in the throat, it isn’t made in the mouth /x/ or on the lips /ɸ/. Altogether now: “Harry has hairy hands”.

Silent H

H is always silent in HONOUR, HOUR, HONEST, HEIR, VEHICLE & VEHEMENT. You don’t say it after ‘g’ in GHOST, GHASTLY, AGHAST, GHERKIN & GHETTO, or after ‘r’ in RHINOCEROS, RHUBARB, RHYME and RHYTHM. It’s normally silent after ‘w’: WHAT? WHICH? WHERE? WHEN? WHY? but it’s pronounced in WHO? – “Who’d have thought it?”. And we don’t always say it after ‘ex’ –  which is either EXHILARATING… or EXHAUSTING.

Weak H

The weak function words: HE, HIM, HIS, HER, HAVE, HAD & HAS all tend to lose the H if the word doesn’t appear at the beginning. So say H in “He’s ok”, but not in “Is he really?”. Pronounce it in “Have you finished”, but not in “You must have done”. 

H Droppers

Many British English speakers never, ever say /h/; so they pronounce ‘hill’ and ‘ill’ identically – /ɪl/. These speakers are known as ‘H Droppers’ and it’s a clear feature of most regional British accents – London included, altogether now: “Harry has hairy hands”. 

a/an + H

The rule goes that the article ‘a’ is used before a consonant and ‘an’ is used before a vowel, so with silent H we would say “an honest” and with pronounced H we would say “a hotel”. But some posher speakers tend to treat a pronounced H as if it were not there, so they would say “an historic” and “an hotel”. H droppers tend to always use ‘an’, so cockneys would say “Give us an (h)and” and “She’s renting an (h)ouse”.

HAITCH or AITCH?

The pronunciation of the letter itself is unclear, should it be /heɪtʃ/ or /eɪtʃ/? The standard or ‘correct’ version in GB is /eɪtʃ/, and this is the pronunciation the BBC recommends to its broadcasters as being “less likely to attract audience complaints.” The reality is that both pronunciations are commonly used and some native speakers will switch between both.

TH, GH, SH, PH

The sound /h/ is always spelt with an H. But that’s not the only time we see it in English. It combines with ’t’ to make the two dental fricatives /θ/ in THINK and /ð/ in THIS. It combines with ’s’ to make /ʃ/ in SHAME, POSH & FASHION, and with c to make /tʃ/ in CHIMNEY & WATCH. ‘ph’ is normally pronounced /f/ like in PHENOMENAL & ELEPHANT, but not in SHEPHERD. Sometimes ‘gh’ is also /f/ at the end of a syllable ENOUGH! but it’s more likely to be silent – WEIGH, THIGH, THROUGH, THOROUGH & BOROUGH. Oh and let’s not forget the /p/ in HICCOUGH.

American vs British

Some famous differences between GB English and its American counterpart involve H. In GB we have SCHEDULES with a /ʃ/, but in America they are /ˈskedʒəlz/. GB cooks like the H in HERBS, whereas they prefer /ˈɜːrbz/ across the pond. 

Do we really need /h/?

Most Latin based languages have got rid of /h/ – you won’t find one in Spanish, French or Italian to name a few, and there has been an ongoing debate for centuries as to whether we need the sound at all in English. When you consider words like ‘hospital’ dropped their /h/ to /ˈɒspɪtəl/, then got it back again, and the fact it simply doesn’t exist in most regional accents, you may wonder whether /h/ is just a fashion accessory bandied around by elocutionists elusively seeking ‘correctness’. 


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By | 2016-09-28T16:05:59+00:00 September 28th, 2016|Pronunciation, Sounds|7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Penny September 28, 2016 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    In Finland, we call the letter “ho”.

    Ho, ho, ho!!!

    • Joseph Hudson September 29, 2016 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Ah! Now I understand where Father Christmas gets it from.

  2. Aurelio Hernandez September 28, 2016 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    Very good article , though it is incorrect to say that the letter “H” is not used in Spanish That’s true only in Italian and French. “H” is silent in Spanish, but the letter itself has not been dropped ifrom the Spanish alphabet, and many time is used to differentiate between homophones, for example between “Hola” (hello) and “Ola” (wave, outbreak)

    • Joseph Hudson September 29, 2016 at 4:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks Aurelio. The last section is about /h/ which refers to the sound rather than the letter itself. I don’t think English could do without the letter, particularly with all the combinations it makes. But it could lose the sound, in the same way Spanish has kept the letter and lost the sound.

      • Luis February 12, 2017 at 4:38 pm - Reply

        Joseph, you’re absolutely right. Aurelio missed the point.

  3. Nandy November 6, 2016 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Extremely useful for a first generation Indian mother teaching her British born daughter! But I thought “hiccough” is spelt as hiccup’ .

  4. Luis February 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm - Reply

    Excellent page. The first time I visited London an ” Hdropper” lady was talking me about her (h)ouse and left me thinking for several minutes about what was she talking about. But I suppose she also had problems trying to understand my funny English.

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