Why does Spanish use the letter H?

This is something I’ve wondered about ever since I took Spanish way back in high school. In Spanish, the letter H is silent. Hector is pronounced “Ector” and hora (hour) is pronounced “ora”.

So, why do they use H at all? Are words with H all loan words from other languages? Were H’s originally pronounced, but the sound got dropped somehow?

Without getting deep into etymological matters – original ‘h’ Fenician ->Greek->Latin – it’s still in use because it serves to differentiate the meaning between written words. I.e.=

1-Ola = wave

2-Hola = hello

3-Hay = there is/are

4-Ay = ouch!, ow!, moan, a cry

5-Hasta = until, up to

6-Asta = mast, horn

Beyond that, combined with “C” as in “ch” it is no longer silent and used in many a word. In fact “CH” used to be a letter itself in the old Spanish Dictionaries.





…and on and on. And that’s not even getting into words that use “ch” in them. Abuchar, lechuga, Apache, mapache and so on.

Hope that helps.

Which looks like what we’d spell ‘Phoenician’ in English.

RedFury already said all this while I was typing, but:

  1. They need them in the combination CH, so there’s no point in purging the keyboards and convincing the population that they do not exist.
  2. They are an etymological reminder that there was once an /h/ sound, admittedly a long time ago (hablar) or a very very very long time ago (hora).
  3. They help with homophones: A qué hora ora? What time is he praying?

Right, because if it it were A qué ora ora? it would mean “What time is my next blow job?”

As far as the OP goes, number 2 is it. I really don’t think number 3 has any real validity.

Not that we English speakers pronounce the “h” in “hour” either, of course… :slight_smile:

Sure it does, in written Spanish, as per many examples already given. Another one is hoya (pit, hole) and olla (jar) (although the y = ll equivalence doesn’t hold in all dialects of Spanish).

I think John Mace’s point is that, while the letter “h” does help to distinguish homophones, it wasn’t inserted into or retained in the written language for that reason; it originally existed in those words for reasons relating to actually contrastive pronunciations, and remains in those words out of the same inertia of spelling that affects most words, rather than any conscious attempt to keep homophones from becoming homonyms.

The OP asks “Why do they use “h” at all?” While the origin may have been due to pronunciation, it most likely has been retained because of the spelling distinction. Spanish is extremely aggressive in its insistence that orthography conform with pronunciation. Unlike English or some other languages, loan words are almost always spelled according to their Spanish pronunciation, and that often extends to foreign proper names. I think silent ‘h’ would have been eliminated long ago if it were merely an artifact of former pronunciation.

There’s also the fact that it’s actually a remnant from the evolution of the spanish language. Many words that currently use the letter ‘h’ used to have an ‘f’ instead.

For instance:

hermosa was formerly fermosa

facer turned into hacer

Some proper names actually retain both forms


Diceman, does it strike you as odd that English retains the letters Q and X? Neither has a “primary” phoneme of its own, and the single possibilities for each (voiceless uvular plosive for the former, voiceless velar fricative for the latter) do not occur in Modern English. For that matter, one might argue either that K is redundant with C (since the latter was used to spell the voiceless velar plosive before the former), or that, since C’s use both for that and for the voiced alveolar siblant (as in cease) renders it ambivalent, C should be only used in the voiceless affricate ch, as in church. And then you’d want us to abandon the H in that construction. And then you’d want to change the spelling of, for instance, either then or thin. And then you’d wonder about the first vowel sounds in *wander *and wonder, and that would lead you to wanting to rejigger wind as in breeze and wind as in twist about, and…

Well, you get my point, I hope. Orthography remains as it is because of inertia as much as for any other reason. Changing spelling suddenly results only in confusion and chaos.

And there are many inertial spellings in English, arguably many more than Spanish. A neat and clean example is the digraph “gh” - in the middle ages it represented the gutteral sound that is represented by the Greek “x” and the German “ch”. “Light” is cognate with German “licht”, and used to sound a lot closer to it. Other words with the silent “gt” are bright, height/high (compare German “hoch”), sight, night (compare German “nacht”), sleight, right, plight, and flight (compare German “flucht”). Eventually people stopped pronouncing the “gh” but continued to spell it the way they always had. Nowadays the “gh” phoneme isn’t even a part of most English accents/dialects and many English speakers drop the “gh” in loanwords like “chutzpah”. Also, I believe that many if not all silent terminal "e"s were originally pronounced.

This is true in English, but as I already pointed out it is relatively rare in Spanish. Orthography almost always represents current pronunciation rather than being an archaic holdover. (There are cases in which Iberian Spanish differs from Latin American in the pronunciation of certain letters such as ‘c’, but the correspondence between spelling and pronunciation holds well within each dialect.) Five hundred years ago the spelling of Spanish varied much more, but has since been regularized.

English spelling was far more irregular 500 years ago; its regularization is also somewhat recent. I’m happy to assume you’re right and I’m wrong about Spanish, though.

Somewhat ironically, although English spelling may have varied more in the past, it probably corresponded better with pronunciation. Those variant spellings were an attempt to reproduce the way the words actually sounded at the time. The divergence of spelling and pronunciation is a more recent development.

Well, it is merely an artifact of former pronunciation. Saying it’s retained because of the spelling distinction amounts to saying it’s retained because it’s there. Or rather, let me ask, what is the homophone from which disambiguation requires keeping the “H” in the OP’s “Hector”, or “hacienda”, “hombre”, “horchata”, “hermano”, etc.?

No. It is there (1) because of the history, but also (2) because it hasn’t been removed. One of the reasons to keep an unpronounced sign is to distinguish between homophones.

I don’t think we’re disagreeing very much, so I’ll concede and leave it at that.

How do you pronounce “Huevos” or “Huaraches” ?