Latin Languages: The Letter 'H'

This has been bugging me for quite a while (laugh all you want): why do latin languages use the silent letter ‘h’? I’m familiar with three latin languages: French, Spanish and Italian. In many words this letter seems to have absolutely no function.

For example, in French the words ‘herbe’ and ‘horloge’ are approximately pronounced ‘airb’ and ‘orlozhe’. In Spanish, ‘hielo’, ‘haber’, ‘hasta’ are approximately pronounced ‘yellow’, ‘aberr’, ‘asta’.

The English ‘h’ as in ‘hive’ doesn’t exist in any of these languages. I know that in some cases the letter ‘h’ is used to distinguish spelling of similar sounding words like Italian ‘ha’ (has) and ‘a’ (to). Otherwise it is ignored.

Of course, I know that the letter ‘h’ is also used in non-silent forms like French ‘ch’, and Italian ‘gh’, but again, only in combination with another letter.

Did the Romans of Antiquity use the letter ‘h’? I’m sure there’s a reason for this letter. I’d really like to know.

Sorry, it just occured to me that the title should probably be “Romance Languages:…”, not “Latin Languages”.

Re French Hs:

Although there is no difference in sound in modern French, there used to be a difference between aspirated Hs (when you could hear the H sound) and unaspirated Hs (when the H sound was silent). The only time you will really notice this now in French is when liaison changes based on whether the H is aspirated or not. Example:

Les herbes (unaspirated H; phrase is pronounced Lay Zairbe)

Les Halles (aspirated H, phrase is pronounced Lay All - not Lay Zall, as so many non-French people mistakenly think).

However, if you just said the words “herbes” and Halles" the Hs, in modern French, would sound identical - but they used to be two distinct sounds, one silent and one not.

(No nitpicking about sounds not being silent, okay? ;)  )

I am forgetting my Italian phonetic history, but I think it’s the same thing there, maybe with Spanish too.

When I was studying Latin, I was told that the Classical Latin “h” was close enough to the English “h” that we didn’t need to worry about the difference.

But the Romance Languages are descended not from Classical Latin (the language of the upper classes) but from Vulgar Latin (the language of soldiers and merchants). In Vulgar Latin the “h” sound mostly disappeared sometime around 250 B.C., long before the Romance languages developed.

Hmm . . .

Les herbes would be pronounced “Lays Airb”, no?

I was under the impression that Les Halles would be “Lays àll”, not “lay àll”. And I’m not non-French . . .

As for the use and pronunciation of the letter H in Latin words . . . hibernia is a Latin word, if I recall correctly. And the H is definitely pronounced there unless things have changed or I was taught incorrectly.

[hijack]The Greeks had an interesting way with this sort of thing, as they didn’t exactly have an H. To the point that one verb’s root is a rough breathing sound, though I don’t know which one - I have this on the authority of phantomdiver, who double-majored in Greek and Religion, and my father, who also took substantial Greek in high school (and, I think, college).[/hijack]

I would hazard a guess, though it is only a guess, that the H arrived with some amount of bastardization of the language with the shift from Greek to Roman civilizations.

Our esteemed moderator, Arnold Winkelried, discussed this point a few months ago, in a reply to Francophones du monde, aidez-moi.

The Romans did use the letter “H”, and there is plenty of evidence to show that they did…most of it is carved in marble. You have words like “Hic, Haec, Hoc” and “Homo,” etc. Many of these words come from the Greek where the omicron or omega is aspirated, as indicated by the “’” placed before the letter.

Whether or not the “H” was vocalized in these words is debatable. One would imagine that they must have been somewhow perceptible to the listener, if not the reader.

Certainly the “H” was sounded in some late Latin words, such as the “Hibernia” mentioned by a previous poster.

Italian, or “Modern Latin” if you will, reserves the H for foreign, mostly English, imports.

This seems to be a question of orthography rather than pronuciation. Ambrose Birece defined “orthography” as “the science of spelling by the eye instead of the ear.”

Fine with me, Ms. Garfunkel. :slight_smile:

Here’s what József Herman (translated from French to English by Roger Wright) has to say in his book “Vulgar Latin” on page 38.

I’d like to note however, that very frequently, Latin American Spanish uses /h/ where Iberian Spanish uses /x/ (the ch in loch).

Note to the mods: If I have quoted way too much, feel free to delete it, and ask me to give a synopsis, but i think it’s important this paragraph be in full.

Well, if you are not non-French, I suppose we should take your word for it, but I was pretty sure what missbunny said was right.

If the /h/ was lost early on in Vulgar Latin, and the sound was reintroduced from Greek loanwords, well the /h/ (rough breathing) was also lost pretty early from Greek. Evidence for that is the name Hind which became India in Greek.

The smooth breathing (start of a word with a vowel sound or rho) symbol looked like a right-handed apostrophe, and the rough breathing symbol like a left-handed apostrophe. These have been kept in Greek writing, even though there’s no more difference in pronunciation, until a few years ago. I think the Greeks recently dropped them. Which means the name of their country has just officially changed from Hellas to Ellas.

The French elision means that les herbes is pronounced [lezErb]. If you broke that into syllables, it would divide after the vowel and before the consonant: [le zErb]. So missbunny was right.

The French h aspiré could not have been a survival of actual pronounced /h/ in the French language, which descended from Vulgar Latin, which had lost its /h/ sound in ancient times. If it was ever really pronounced at all in French, it would have to have been a learned reintroduction of the Latin sound during the Renaissance.

It was only in Charlemagne’s time that French people began to realize they were actually speaking Old French instead of really, really bad Latin. Up until then everyone assumed that they way the talked normally was still Latin, and the sermons in church used this degenerate popular “Latin”. Then the decree went forth to have the sermons preached in correct classical Latin, and that made a definite break between everyday speech and Latin. Thus Old French was born.

Thinking about the example of Hind > India in Greek. AFAIK the Greeks transcribed the initial Hebrew H- in Biblical names with the rough breathing, but that worked only at the beginnings of words. The name Johannes in Greek had to be written Ioannes because the rough breathing didn’t happen in the middle of a word. In the Greek Septuagint, how did they write Old Testament names like Abraham and Ahasuerus? They would have had to write “Abraam,” which would make the change from Abram to Abraham look less impressive.

One interesting thing about Spanish, at least, is that the sound of ‘h’ hasn’t been lost (or it has been re-acquired). While ‘h’ is always silent (only functioning in the combination ‘ch’, which is regarded as a separate letter when alphabetizing), the sound is indicated by ‘j’ (or sometimes ‘g’ when it occurs before ‘i’ or ‘e’), although this is usually more aspirated than in English.

Conversely, the true English ‘j’ sound does not exist in Spanish and cannot really be spelled (it’s somewhere between an initial ‘y’ and ‘ch’).

Any ideas on how this shift occurred in Spanish?

Modern Spanish “j” replaced medieval Spanish “x”. (That’s why “Mexico” and “Mejico” are alternative spellings; they’re both pronounced [mehiko].)

In medieval Spanish, “x” was used for the “sh” sound (still is in Brazilian Portuguese, just ask Xixa). Sometime in the last few hundred years, the “sh” sound shifted backward in the mouth from a palatal fricative to a velar fricative.

Something similar happened in Hindi and other modern Indo-Aryan languages, as the Sanskrit “Sh” sound shifted backward to become a velar aspirate /kh/. For example, the Deccan (upland in South India) got its name from Sanskrit dakShina ‘right hand’, hence ‘south’ – in Hindi the Sh shifted to kh and the name is now dakkhan.

We can tell how sound shifts happen, but exactly why is one of the great mysteries of historical linguistics.

Whoops, I meant Xuxa. Must have gotten her mixed up with Xica da Silva!

iampunha, yeah, in this case you are mistaken - liaison requires the words “les herbes” to be pronounced as I said, “lay zairb,” not “lays airb”: the liaisoned consonant attaches itself to the following vowel. It is a subtle but distinct difference and is one of the reasons many non-expert French speakers, though seemingly speaking very good French, are not understood by native French speakers. Try it with different words - your mouth will feel the difference in sound and tone:

Les arbres = lay zarbr, not lays arbr
Les animaux = lay zanimo, not lays animo
See what I mean - can you feel the difference with the front of your tongue? It’s there, I tell you! :slight_smile:

“Les Halles” is “lay all” - the H is aspirated; therefore, there is no liaison. This is one of those words that you would pretty much have to be told how to pronounce it by someone living in France - it is one of the most common mispronunciations by visitors (who might speak some French but aren’t 100% fluent). I’m trying to think of some other aspirated H words but of course I can’t right now.

In Spanish the J sound exists independently from its latin roots. Spain was occupied for 600 years by moors who do have that aspirated sound as part of their language. The vernacular latin that became spanish slowly incorporated arabic words (ojala, almojabarifazgo, etc.). That is also the reason why the Spanish j is a much more aspirated sound.

In one of Catullus’ poems, he mocks the hoity-toity upper class, who tend to vastly overpronouce their h sounds to distinguish them from the commoners (not unlike the affected Hahvahd accent nowadays, I suppose). From this we deduce that there was an H sound in the Latin that Catullus used, and that it wasn’t usually pronounced as heavily as it might be.

Doobieus, don’t worry about the quote: A single paragraph from a full book almost always qualifies as an excerpt, and is thus allowable.

Lest anyone think, given my somewhat bad approximation of “lay all” as the pronunciation of Les Halles, that I also might not really know what I’m talking about with respect to the aspirated H issue: I know “Halle” really isn’t pronounced “all” - it’s more a cross between “all,” al," and “ul,” but “all” is close enough for English speakers.

(I feel I must be very careful in my posts here because there is always some knowledgeable person who will notice a mistake!)   :)

Well, from what i’ve read, no. As has been said, j in Spanish came to represent the sound (/x/) that was formerly /S/ (sh). In the example “ojalá”, it comes from the phrase “inshallah” (god willing). The sound /S/ did exist from Latin roots. A good example of this is the word “bajo”, which came from “bassus”. In old spanish this was spelled “baxo”, IIRC.

Colibri: the h sound you find in Latin American and i think Andalusian Spanish is a dialectal development. It evolved from Castillian /x/ (ch in loch). The sounds are close, but /x/ (uvular fricative) is not /h/ (glottal fricative). Also, the Academia Real in Spain declared that ch isn’t a separate letter, and neither is ll anymore.