Ah, the plague of missing letters. His name was ‘Arry. yes that is correctly spelled, not Harry, but ‘Arry. To my father there was never an “H” that deserved to be pronounced, he missed them out on every occasion. As he would say “it’s the ‘ight of ‘umility to say ‘ello to ‘er ‘ighness“. For him the “H” sign on the road (Hospital) should have been an “O” as that word would never be pronounced with an “H“. To him this letter was so powerful that it could never spoken. The one he did pronounce was for hotel. I swear he dropped so many that I am still sweeping them up today and never know where I will find the next batch.
Find out more about London accents here.
But, when he wrote (not that he did that too often), there were all the “H”s, just as they should all be placed, never a missing one, crafted lovingly by a hand that provided natural calligraphy with all of its flowing curves, often in doubles and trebles.
A traditional rule of English states that “an” is used before words that start with an “H” when the first syllable of that word is not stressed. When is the “H” stressed or not? To use one of my father’s favourites, the word hospital, I have always believed the word to be stressed on the first syllable as opposed to hotel which is stressed on the last. The first syllable is ‘hos’, and is stressed when correctly pronounced, therefore correct usage is ‘a hospital‘ and ‘an hotel‘ where the “H” is nearly silent. (Despite what the grammar checking software may say).
There are a lot of words that begin with an H and it is only when used as a singular noun that you need to take care in its usage. Where the “H” is at the beginning of the word it is silent (or almost) in words like honour and honest.
The letter “H” can be silent in other parts of the word as well. Think of the following:
Although in the last of these I believe the “H” is less than silent as it modifies the sound of the “Y“.
If you know enough is enough, then the following words should follow suit, although most don’t:
Hiccough is the weirdest of each, it has the word cough embedded, yet that part of the word is pronounced “cup”. It also has a distinct pause between the first and second part, like “hick cup“. There are plenty of words that are not pronounced that way they are spelt, consider the following diagram:
Many are because of the impact of silent letters shown on this page, others are because of foreign words introduced into the English language. Others have weird and wonderful reasons behind them. Wednesday, for example, is based on an Old English the day of the week named after the Germanic god Woden, The word and its pronunciation has changed over time from Wodensday to the current Wednesday.
There are other letters that are silent in parts of certain words. “K” is silent in knife, knee, knight, knot, knock , and many others. “W” because we write, wrap, wrangle, wrinkle, and wriggle with it (among other things). “B” as in bomb, comb, crumb, climb, debt, doubt, and where would we be without our thumb? “T” as with castle, fasten, hasten, listen, nestle, and whistle.
Going in another direction “P” when combined with an “H” is modified to sound like an “F” in words like physical, physics, pharmacy, alphabet, hyphen, elephant, and dolphin. Yet “P” becomes silent when combined with an “S” at the beginning of a word as in psychology or psychiatrist, but can also remain silent on other occasions as in pneumatic, pneumonia, pterosaurs (those flying dinosaurs), and ptarmigan (the name of a bird). “P” also wishes to join in the game of not being pronounced in the middle of words, such as in corps, coup, cupboard, and receipt. It thinks of itself as quite versatile, does the little “p”.
“G” gets into the action with words like benign, cologne, foreign, reign, sign, resign and design. It is silent in the beginning of words like gnarl, gnaw, gnome, and gnu.
Did I ever say that English was easy?
Why have a letter in a word when it’s silent in pronunciation? It is a question of phonetics. The fact English is such a fast-evolving language and has many centres of use gives many variations in language use. Latin, Old French, Saxon, German, Middle and Old English, Norse, have all had their impact on the language. The same is true for lands conquered by the English and later the British which have introduced new words into the language.
Tea, the favourite drink of the both Britain and Indian sub-continent is a word adopted from Hindi, “chai”. It is also true of words like Mississippi and caribou adopted from the Algonquian tribes of North America, other native American tribes have also contributed to the language. The same is true for other European languages which offer an influence. Latin is the basis of Spanish, Italian and French, which have all influenced the language. Influence of the Angles and Saxons brings points of similarity to German and Dutch languages. For example here in North America the herb cilantro is commonly available, yet it Britain it is coriander. Cilantro is a Spanish word adopted in the USA and Canada
Other words are manufactured using base languages, Greek and Latin and some others. For example the word television comes from Ancient Greek (tèle), meaning ‘far’, and Latin visio, meaning ‘sight’. Likely borrowed from the French word télévision (after dropping the accent marks), weird given that John Logie Baird, a Scotsman invented the product.
I sometimes wonder if we should sit down and agree a set of spellings that would be phonetic in origin. Yet whose pronunciation would we use? There are some words that are differently pronounced in each land that speaks this language. For example how would we spell water? In England this is clearly pronounced with a ‘t’, but in parts of North America that pronunciation is closer to having a ‘d’ in the middle.
It could be said those things gnaw and gnash at the gnome and the gnu. That causes me to ask how new is the gnu? There are some words where I believe the silent letter affects the pronunciation. We may not distinguish between campaign with a silent ‘g’ and campain without. But I do think words like ‘gnarled’ begin with the faintest of ‘g‘ sounds, I find myself catching it in my teeth. The same can be said for ‘wreck’ where the ‘w‘ is formed in the mouth and the ‘r‘ is wrapped around it, it is not really pronounced ‘reck’. The ‘r‘ differs slightly to that used in ‘rack’ or ‘rock’.
But then with phonetics we would lose some of our ability to use word-play in the language, which is such a crucial asset in humour. We would lose the bare bear. I would have terrible trouble spelling physics with an “F“, probably as much as spelling “feeling” with a ‘ph‘. We would also lose the difference between phish and fish.
The following articles are related to this one:
- Quirks of English and How the Words we use Matter so Much
- Separated by a Common Language?
- Writing and Editing: Do you Read it Aloud?
- Writing: Largely About having the Confidence to Do It!
- “Its Orange Glow” – Colours of Life
Buy Peter B. Giblett a coffee as a thank you. If you have questions then please ask them via a comment. The images included here are from royalty free public domain image collections, photographs from Pixabay, or from Peter Giblett’s personal collection.