Thursday, September 29, 2011

Secret Origins: H

Because it’s been a long time since I’ve done one. Or at least, it feels like it’s been a long time. Well, it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want.

H is another one of those weird letters that has more than one pronunciation. Although in H’s case, it’s more like either pronouncing it or just having it there for show rather than two separate ways of speaking it.

The symbol origin of H is easy. In Greek, capital Eta is Η and the lowercase, η, is kind of like an h without a flag sticking out (or an n). The Greek symbol in turn came from the Hebrew ח heth, not all that different from lowercase eta. And now the pronunciation is back again! If you look at the alphabet .gif, you’ll see that heth was also a Phoenician letter symbolized by what looks like H with the top and bottom connected (also apparent in early Greek versions of eta). However, before that, in the proto-Sinaitic times, it was rounder, more like a twisted piece of string. Appropriate since in Ancient Egypt, the symbol meant wick.

Okay, so that’s the symbol, but what is up with the pronunciation? That’s the tricky part because throughout the years, different languages treated H differently. Let’s go all the way back to about 1900 BC, when proto-Sinaitic, the first alphabet, was formed. They used Egyptian Hieroglyphs as a basis and as you can see here, H was originally used for the “he” sound. Phoenician and Hebrew evolved from proto-Sinaitic and both still had the sound.

Then around 750 BC, the Greek alphabet appeared. If you look at their alphabet, you’ll see they don’t have an H sound at all. That’s because many Greek dialects just didn’t have rough, back of the throat noises like “aitch”.

The beginnings of Latin involved the Etruscans. Their alphabet was based on the visiting Greeks’ and so also lacked an h sound. While classical Latin did use the rough h sound, Vulgar Latin, the more common form, did not. And since the more common language would have been mimicked by French and Italians they conquered, the Romance languages didn’t use the hard H, either. Possibly due to Germanic influence, English did, even pronouncing H on words that didn’t used to have it (herb). Although, there are a few words (like heirand hour), that keep the Latin silence.

TL;DR: Some languages make throaty sounds like H, some don’t.

Omniglot’s pages on the proto-Sinaitic, Greekand Etruscan alphabets
Nick Nicholas’ post on Greek


  1. This was really interesting~ thanks for doing all that research for the letter H!

  2. It is amazing how different languages and cultures treat the 'H'. Even between English speaking countries.

  3. Very informative!

    Now I'll be thinking of other silent h words....


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