herb

When I started this blog, I wrote short little posts about things I noticed in British and American English. Few read them, and I usually managed to write three a week.  Since then, many more readers and commenters have appeared ([AmE] howdy! thank you!). As I imagine this larger audience responding to posts about X with "But what about Y?", I try to fit the Ys in.  Sometimes the Ys are other expressions that I could discuss; sometimes they are beliefs about language that may or may not have basis in reality. As a result, my posts have got(ten) much longer and less frequent. (The latter is also due to parenthood and more responsibility at work. But [BrE] hey-ho.) I now look back on old posts and think: I can do better! So I'm going to have [more BrE than AmE] another go at the pronunciation of herb, which I first dedicated six sentences to in the second month of this blog.

I've more sentences about it because I (BrE) go about/(AmE) go around discussing it in my talk: "How America Saved the English Language". It's one of a long list of differences for which the folklore is faulty, with people like comedian David Mitchell (below) assuming and repeating that Americans don't pronounce the 'h' in herb because we think we (or the word) are French. (The implication here is that the British are not under the illusion that they are French. Except of course that they eat aubergine rather than eggplant and increasingly use -ise instead of -ize and spell centre with the letters in a very French order. And so on. And so forth.)




Mitchell went to Cambridge University, apparently (according to his Wikipedia bio) because he was rejected by Oxford. I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary and that this caused him not to research the claims he made here about herb as well as tidbit/titbit. Had he just looked it up, he would have found the following information.

From the Middle Ages, the word in English was generally spelled (or spelt, if you prefer) erbe, from the Old French erbe--but sometimes it was spelled with an h, after the Latin herba. From the late 15th century the h was regularly included in the spelling in English, but it continued not to be pronounced for nearly 400 years. This was not a problem for English, of course. We often don't pronounce written h, for example in hour and honest and heir, and our ancestors didn't pronounce it in humo(u)r, hospital, or hotel. Change and confusion about these things leads to the oddity of some people insisting that some (but not other) words that start with a pronounced h should nevertheless be preceded by an, not a, as if the h weren't pronounced. (AmE) To each his/her own/(BrE) each to his/her own...

The h in herb finally started being pronounced in the 19th century in Britain. By this time, the US was independent and American English was following a separate path from its British cousin. Why did the English start pronouncing it then? Because that's when h-dropping was becoming a real marker of social class in England. If you wanted to be seen as literate (or at least not Cockney) you had to make sure that people knew you lived in a house, not an 'ouse. This 1855 cartoon from Punch (reproduced as a postcard for the British Library's Evolving English exhibition) illustrates:






The result seems to have been more self-consciousness about pronouncing h where it was in the spelling, and some h's got louder where they had not previously been heard. Why did this happen to herb and hotel but not honest or heir? I don't know.

So, pronouncing herb without the h is the Queen's English, if we're talking Elizabeth I, rather than Elizabeth II.

And in case you were wondering:  Americans pronounce the h in the name Herb, which has a different history from the plant herb.

63 comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Mitchell went to Cambridge University, apparently (according to his Wikipedia bio) because he was rejected by Oxford. I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary

    It wasn't possible to apply to both Cambridge and Oxford at the same time in the early 1990s. This means that, upon being rejected by Oxford, Mitchell must have chosen to wait at least a year so that he could reapply to Cambridge, rather than go to any other university.

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  3. Why did this happen to herb and hotel but not honest or heir?

    I would say that what preserved the pronunciation of honest and heir was that a far greater proportion of people learned them orally in the first place. Words like herb and hotel were either learned from print, or encountered in print before the h-less pronunciation had taken firm hold.

    David Crystal is good on 'restored' consonants. Perverse as it seems now, at the time the cribs were just being helpful. After all, anybody who could read knew Latin (not entirely true, but largely so), therefore 'replacing' etymologically lost letters such the H in herb or the B in doubt provided a mnemonic — less memory work, not more.

    Over the years, various American speakers have recited to me An herb is a useful plant, leaving me with the impression that the h-less pronunciation is learned afresh by each generation of schoolchildren.

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  4. CORRECTION

    For cribs read scribes.

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  5. vp
    His autobiography describes his rejection by Oxford, a year bumming around Europe being miserable, then attending Cambridge.

    He is not a linguist, he's a half assed history scholar who really wanted to be an actor/performer/quiz show host/panelist, and has done very nicely for himself. Known for being cranky and very funny. He also tends to aggressively miss the point when it comes to Americans. This is his shtick. Unfair to ding him on this.

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  6. For such a seemingly innocuous letter it proves remarkably contentious. The spread of 'haitching' in Australia, for example, was seen by some as a sign of moral disintegration.

    As I noted in a post about pronouncing the letter H, I've seen real anger occasioned by the American convention of saying 'erb', but it's fair to assume these critics don't know the word's history even in outline.

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  7. Mitchell has his schtick and I have mine. I don't see why only one of them is unfair.

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  8. Thanks for this interesting post. In Canada usage is a mixture (as is usual in Canada) of with and without the h. I say herb with. I always thought that was the "right" way. But your commentator "Stan" mentioned "haitching" and I've heard aitch pronounced haitch in Canada. I need to look up the letter "h"! Seems to have a shaky history (istory?)

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  9. The name of the letter H is explained in enormous detail in the online OED (entry H,1.1).
    The name of the letter H is explained in enormous detail in the online OED (entry H,1.1).
    By the time of the emperor Augustus (1st c. CE) the sound of H was weakening - there is a famous poem by Catullus on the hypercorrection of a man called Arrius - and by late Latin had been lost completely. This made the names of the letter A and H homonyms, and a new name (acca or ahha) was devised for H: Italian stills calls this letter acca. The ancestor of modern French transformed acca into something approaching acha [aʧa, later aʧə], as 'thatcher'. (The same change transformed 'cattus' into 'chat' and 'vacca' into 'vache', but medieval french simplified ch from ʧ (ch) to ʃ (sh), as in modern French. Medieval English took over the French letter name with the earlier 'ch' pronunciation and the initial vowel changed from [a] to [ei] giving [eiʧ].

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  10. @David Crosbie
    Over the years, various American speakers have recited to me An herb is a useful plant, leaving me with the impression that the h-less pronunciation is learned afresh by each generation of schoolchildren.

    I've lived in the US for 30 years, and not once has anyone come up to me and recited this odd phrase. Hard to imagine in what circumstances they would, really.

    It's strange (and frankly condescending) to suggest that American children need to be taught specifically how to say 'herb,' as if the h-less pronunciation is an ungodly perversion of the natural order. They learn it the same way they learn the language in general -- it's what they hear all around them.

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  11. By the way, we in the US say herbaceous, herbal,herb garden and herbiary, all with an aitch. Also, I think herb with an aitch is gaining traction here, although most Americans continue to say "erb."

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  12. By the way, we in the US say herbaceous, herbal,herb garden and herbiary, all with an aitch. Also, I think herb with an aitch is gaining traction here, although most Americans continue to say "erb."

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  13. Over the years, various American speakers have recited to me An herb is a useful plant, leaving me with the impression that the h-less pronunciation is learned afresh by each generation of schoolchildren.

    Of course, pronunciation of all kinds (h-less or not) is learned afresh by each generation of schoolchildren. Left to their own devices, even the most resourceful schoolchild, I suspect, wouldn't be able to dope out the different ways to pronounce the -ough in dough, rough, and slough.

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  14. Michael Rosen covers the ground very entertainingly in his new book Alphabetical.

    He tells the story of a bright Cockney lad drilled in the 1930's with the chant
    Be honest, humble and humane, hate not even your enemies.

    This is, of course, the classic way NOT to teach pronunciation and/or spelling. In his fifties, he told Michael,
    Even now I get them muddled and say 'Be honest and 'umble and 'umane, 'ate not heven your henemies.

    Of that list, only honest is (for Americans) in the same class as herb. Michael quotes another exhibit from the Evolving English exhibition, Poor Letter H from 1854. The relevant pages are reproduced in this accompanying book — on the same page as the Punch cartoon reproduced above. The Hon. Henry H writes to his friends the the vowel in Alphabet Lodge that he has read that only these words (and their cognates) should be pronounced without aspiration: HEIR, HONEST, HONOUR, HERB, HOSPITAL, HOSTLER, HOUR, HUMOUR, adding
    'Some folks say that humble and humility should be included in this list, and I think so too.

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  15. The Hon. Henry H's 1854 list is interesting in two regards:
    • the words which no longer belong in Britain or in both countries
    • the fact that it's so incredibly short

    I doubt whether there would be much interest in these moves to spelling pronunciation, but for the fact that aspiration has been such a shibboleth. I merrily used the tern h-less in an earlier posting. Michael Rosen informs me that it was at least as contemptuous as today's 'chav'. The Times and 'other polite newspapers' wrote with disdain of 'h-less Socialists', and of nouveau riche who were 'still h-less'.

    As for the Hon Henry's list, there are very few changes to note:
    heir, honest, honour, hour remain unaspirated in all dialects
    humour, humble have changed to spelling pronunciation in (I think) all dialects
    hospital changed so late to spelling pronunciation that the wording an hospital remained in posh speech
    hostler changed its spelling
    herb alone developed differently in Britain and America

    Michael also suggests the word homage and a UK/US split. I wonder. For me, there are two words
    1. the ex-French word meaning 'ceremonial subservience' and pronounced HOMMIDGE

    2. the stiil-French word meaning 'mark of respect in a work of art (usually a film) to another artist' and pronounced OMMAZH

    With such a tiny corpus, it's hard to make any useful generalisation. Tentatively, I suggest that if a word is unfamiliar when speakers are young and inexperienced, there's a chance that they'll hear the unaspirated pronunciation as uneducated.

    Herb doesn't fit the explanation. I do believe David Mitchell captured something. The unaspirated pronunciation of herb can sound to young ears not so much uneducated as foreign.

    There's an oddly similar story from Classical Latin. It's a poem which, given my education, I'd known but long since forgotten. Michael, a poet himself, doesn't forget these things. Catullus wrote of an unfortunate guy called Arrius that he said cHommoda for commoda and Hinsidias for insidias. Michael offers as a rough translation Arrius says 'hopportunity' when he wants to say 'opportunity' and 'ambush' for 'ambush'. Catullus concludes that after Arrius's cultural trip to the Ionian Sea, it's now Hionia'. Catullus is putting Arrius's aspiration down to an effort to ape the cultural Greeks. As David Mitchell would say, he thinks he (or the word) is Greek.

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  16. David L

    They learn it the same way they learn the language in general -- it's what they hear all around them.

    Well, we in Britain didn't when I was a boy. Herb was a very unusual word, which I probably saw in writing long before I heard it.

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  17. David L

    I've lived in the US for 30 years, and not once has anyone come up to me and recited this odd phrase. Hard to imagine in what circumstances they would, really.

    Well, imagine mixing with expatriate American teachers of English. Something I did for more than 30 years.

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  18. When I was a young, very green American at Cambridge, I was humiliated at least twice over language issues. One was when my supervisor expressed shock over a split infinitive in an essay I'd written, and the other was when the same woman burst out laughing when I referred to 'erbs in conversation. She thought I was trying to sound British and couldn't tell proper speech from Cockney, and she refused to believe that Americans drop the h.

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  19. @Marc Leavitt - American here (lived in Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Louisiana, and Texas) - people in the areas I've been don't pronounce the H in any of those herb-related words, though I don't recall anyone ever saying herbiary (with or without the H).

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  20. Don't forget "hotel" in your list of words - the pronunciation without the "h" is now, I think, obsolete, but the kind of person who said "gel" for girl and "lorst" and "clorth" for lost and cloth (e.g. my late paternal grandmother) would not have pronounced the "h", any more than they pronounced the "l" in calf or golf.

    My mother, incidentally, often says "yarbs" for herbs - I don't know whether that is an idiosyncracy, or whether she thinks it's Sussex (is it, Lynne?) or what.

    As for "herb", what strikes me as even more interesting than the pronunciation, is that Americans say "herbal tea", whereas most (but not all) Britons call it "herb tea". Of course, if you're really not sure what to call it, you can always say "infusion"!

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  21. @Mrs Redboots

    Are you sure that "most" Brits call it "herb tea". It's not a phrase I remember from when I lived in Britain and drank a lot of herbal tea.

    From my quick online research, Tesco, Waitrose, and Marks and Spencer all call it "herbal tea".

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  22. Well, what shops call things and what people do can be very different! I've never heard "herbal tea" from a native British speaker, I have to admit.

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  23. @Mrs Redboots - as a native British speaker, I've only ever heard herbal tea. (Though I was only aware of it once it started being sold in supermarkets, so that may explain it.)

    I tend to agree with David Crosbie, that the US 'erb pronunciation sounds foreign rather than simply "h" dropped. Whether that's just because herb wasn't one of the words I came across being used by "h" dropping speakers, I'm not sure, but it sounds unnatural to my (more or less RP) ears, in a way that 'onest, 'umble or 'ate doesn't.

    (Not that I'm trying to say that US speakers are wrong to pronounce it that way - it's hardly our place to tell you how you should pronounce your language - just explaining how it sounds to me.)

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  24. Marc Leavitt wrote: By the way, we in the US say herbaceous, herbal,herb garden and herbiary, all with an aitch. Also, I think herb with an aitch is gaining traction here, although most Americans continue to say "erb."

    I don't pronounce herbal or herb garden without an H, nor have I ever heard Americans in my acquaintance do so, either. And there are things that come up a lot in my conversations.

    Where in the U.S. are you? Perhaps it's a regional thing.

    Anonymous in New Jersey

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    Replies
    1. Morris County native counters your Jersey pronunciation with her own; herbal and herb garden had their h's dropped. Herbiage, when it was used, was a debate on pronunciation waiting to happen.

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  25. David Crosbie wrote: Michael also suggests the word homage and a UK/US split. I wonder. For me, there are two words
    1. the ex-French word meaning 'ceremonial subservience' and pronounced HOMMIDGE

    2. the stiil-French word meaning 'mark of respect in a work of art (usually a film) to another artist' and pronounced OMMAZH


    I also link those pronunciations to those meanings. Not sure Michael is right about a split there.

    But then again, I am only...

    Anonymous in New Jersey

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  26. Mrs Redbots

    Don't forget "hotel" in your list of words

    Oops!

    Well, it seems that Hon Henry H didn't rate 'otel, and neither did the 'authorities' he quoted.

    This completely confused me. I was really thinking about an hotel when I wrongly wrote about an hospital.

    I wonder whether the unaspirated pronunciation was a reinstatement among posh speakers affecting to sound French later than 1854. I suggested that 'erb can sound foreign to young Brits. The Edwardian 'otel was probably intended to sound foreign.

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  27. Carol Saller, I taught in an English language program in a central Texas university. More than once, students came to me puzzled, dictionaries open, to ask why their teachers told them things that contradicted the dictionary. (One I particularly remember was a student who knew that "comprised of" isn't really the best English, although her other teacher insisted it was the *only* way to use "comprised.") I shook my head a lot.

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  28. Mrs Redboots wrote: any more than they pronounced the "l" in calf or golf

    I'm intrigued by this. I'm familiar with the 'golf'/'goff' split, but who pronounces the 'l' in 'calf'? I've can't remember ever hearing it said other than as 'carf'.
    (And does it differ between the part of the leg and the infant cow?)

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  29. For some reason lost in the mists of antiquity (maybe a misinformed schoolteacher), I believed until quite recently that "homage" (in David's first sense) had a silent "h". It's not a word I've ever had much occasion to use, so the mistake wasn't noticed.



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  30. Kate Bunting

    It's not a word I've ever had much occasion to use

    At school assembly we would occasionally sing

    JESUS shall reign where’er the sun
    Does his successive journeys run,
    His kingdom stretch from shore to shore
    Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

    Behold the islands with their kings,
    And Europe her best tribute brings;
    From north and south the princes meet
    To pay their homage at his feet.


    I'm to sure I ever heard homage without pay.

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  31. I'd regard 'homage' as a normal word, used in both the ways mentioned above. I'd regard both as basically the same meaning, the second deriving from the first. I've never heard it pronounced in any way other than 'hommidge'. I'd assume anyone who pronounced it 'ommazh' as either trying to be funny or unbelievably pretentious.

    Is there, seriously, anywhere that this is not the case?

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  32. Anonymous:

    The confusion was due to my use of "aitch." I should have written "haitch," or "hard" H. By the way, herbal tea always has a hard H. I'm from Central New Jersey.

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  33. The OED states

    Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈhɒmɪdʒ/ , U.S. /ˈ(h)ɑmɪdʒ/ (also, chiefly in sense 3b) Brit. /ɒˈmɑːʒ/ , U.S. /oʊˈmɑʒ/

    By 'sense 3b', they mean

    spec. A work of art or entertainment which incorporates elements of style or content characteristic of another work, artist, or genre, as a means of paying affectionate tribute. Also: an instance of such tribute within a work of art or entertainment.

    The give five quotes: this from 1901 and 1935 include a homage. But the (AmE) quote from 1935 has an homage as does the quote from 2007. (The remaining quote from 1991 has a major homage.

    Of all the other uses from all periods, not one quote has the spelling omage or the phrase an homage. So the alternative US pronunciation implied by ˈ(h)ɑmɪdʒ/ can't be that common.

    Where they do quote an is with the obsolete 17th century term homage penny which was used by theologians to characterise a certain view of divine tribute.

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  34. Re. Marc Leavitt

    When I was very young, I pronounced "herb" with an H. Now I pronounce it "erb". I'm a Canadian, and among my Canadian and American peers, I'd say "erb" is much more common. For those that say "erb", your examples of herbal and herb garden would be pronounced accordingly (erbal, erb garden). Interestingly, I agree with you that "herbaceous" (and "herbivore") are most often pronounced with the H by those same people (though herbaceous could go either way). I can't speak to herbiary, as I've never heard that word used.

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  35. @Marc,

    Nope. Your use of aitch wasn't the problem; we simply have different experiences with those words despite living in the same tiny state. But then the differences in accent and word-use in the various parts of New Jersey are rather sharp when one considers just how small the state is.

    BTW, I'm from (extreme) South Jersey, have lived in various other parts of the country, and now live just outside NYC.

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  36. @ David Crosbie:

    Have you, or anybody else, ever come across the wonderful children's book Hildebrand by John Thorburn? We grew up with it. Hildebrand is cursed with only being able to eat things that begin with "h", but is saved from a lifetime of hay, which he dislikes, by his new owner, Horace, who gives him "hoats and hextras", the "hextras" being carrots and sugar....

    I tend to always pronounce homage like garage, if that makes sense; I took it strange when I first heard the French-style pronunciation a few weeks ago on-line!

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  37. @Marc,

    I've lived in just about all imaginable parts of New Jersey, including central (Edison, Clark) and have never heard any of those words pronounced with a hard H, except herbaceous, which my instinct tells me has a hard H, but it's not a word I use or hear often.

    As for the name of the letter, I hear "hech" (not really "haitch") exclusively from speakers of Indian English here.

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  38. You brought up a very interesting point. With the English language there are numerous words that are not spelled exactly as they sound.

    For example the H is silent in the words honest, hour, and exhume. In the history of the English language we have borrowed quite a few words from the French. This led to the H being silent.

    The English language is continuously evolving. Making old words into new words. Or removing some words altogether.

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  39. Naming the letter with an aspirated initial H has an extra dimension, since occasionally it can be taken (rightly or wrongly) as a marker of Irish Catholic origins or education - which opens a whole new can of worms of prejudices and pre-conceptions.

    And if one wants to pronounce "homage" in the French way, to indicate the specific literary cultural meaning (i.e., to signal that something isn't lazy plagiarism or facetious pastiche), then it might as well be spelt as the French do.

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  40. David:
    I'm very familiar with that hymn, but don't remember ever having sung the verse you quote. It isn't in my copy of "A&M".

    Mrs. Redboots:
    Don't forget that there are two pronunciations of "garage" in UK English! I assume you mean that you say "hommidge" and "garridge"?

    I do vaguely remember Hildebrand from an anthology of horse stories I read as a girl.

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  41. Kate Bunting

    Isaac Watts wrote these eight verses to paraphrase (very loosely) Psalm 72.

    I goggled for these words because I misremembered the last verse

    Let every creature rise, and bring
    Peculiar honors to our King,
    Angels descend with songs again,
    And earth repeat the loud


    I thought it was peculiar homage, but no.

    I remember the line (albeit imperfectly) because from it I learned the 'particular' meaning of peculiar. This actually served me badly when my uncle administered an IQ test to me. One question was What does peculiar mean?, and I struggled to express the extra information I'd acquired. Knowing how tests work, this probably resulted in a lower vocabulary score than I actually merited.

    That said, I still find the collocation pay homage to familiar and not at all unusual.

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  42. And each repeat the loud


    The missing word is, of course, Amen.

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  43. Certainly things like humane and humility are different. I can't pronounce the initial H even if I wanted to. Does anyone really say something other than "yumane" and "yumility"?

    As for homage, I seem to have free variation with both pronouncing the initial h and using the French g, independent of each other and of meaning except that I always use "an" as the indefinite article before it, and drop the H when the article is used, and the phrase "pay homage" where I always seem to use the "payommidge" pronunciation (yh is just as impossible for me as hy).

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  44. Lynne

    I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary and that this caused him not to research the claims he made here about herb

    Actually, there's a defence. For no obvious reason, the OED gives as the only pronunciation /hɜːb/. Clearly it should show separate UK and US pronunciations, but it completely fails to do so.

    The stuff you quote is hidden to the casual viewer. You need to click (Show more) at the end of the curtailed information headed by Etymology:. And even quite regular users would might not expect UK/US pronunciation information here.

    Mrs Redboots

    My mother, incidentally, often says "yarbs" for herbs

    This actually gets a mention in the OED.
    • if you click Show more after Forms. It lists dialect forms herb, yarn, yirb.

    • Among the quotes are uses by two literary authors on opposite sides of the Atlantic, albeit in quotation marks.

    1847 H. D. Thoreau I hope he got ‘yarbs’ enough to satisfy him.
    1855 C. Kingsley Some skill in ‘yarbs’, as she called her simples.

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  45. Hey there, I really enjoy reading your posts--I'm kind of confused about BrE and AmE myself much of the time. Also, it's great that you use humor! A lot of people apparently forget that you don't HAVE TO be boring just because you're a linguist

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  46. Boris Zakharin wrote: Does anyone really say something other than "yumane" and "yumility"?

    Yes. I say (to approximate your system of phonetic pronunciation) "hyumane" and "hyumility". How do you pronounce "hue"? The way I pronounce it is the way I pronounce the first syllable of each of the Previous two.

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  47. Oh, and the "hue" comment was from Anonymous in New Jersey.

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  48. Boris Zakharin

    Does anyone really say something other than "yumane" and "yumility"?

    Almost everybody, it would appear.

    The OED recognises only

    Brit. /hjʊˈmeɪn/ , /ˌhjuːˈmeɪn/ , U.S. /hjuˈmeɪn/

    As with the entry for herb, there is some discussion of pronunciation under Etymology, but the only variant identified is the stress.

    For humility they offer only /hjuːˈmɪlɪtɪ/ with no UK/US differentiation.

    John Wells in his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary includes unaspirated pronunciations of humility and several cognates of human — but interestingly not of humane — all of them marked `British non-RP'.

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  49. I've always dropped the H in homage -- 'ommidge. I recognise the French pronunciation in an artistic context, but it feels so pretentious in my mouth that I'd try hard to avoid it!

    I pronounce HHospital and HHotel in isolation; the Hs may or may not be dropped in connected speech. But I always write "an hospital", "an hotel", which is probably a holdover from being terribly pretentious as a teenager.

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  50. @Dru: 'd regard 'homage' as a normal word, used in both the ways mentioned above. I'd regard both as basically the same meaning, the second deriving from the first. I've never heard it pronounced in any way other than 'hommidge'. I'd assume anyone who pronounced it 'ommazh' as either trying to be funny or unbelievably pretentious.

    Is there, seriously, anywhere that this is not the case?


    In my mouth (and hence, presumably in my environment when I grew up). I say "hommidge" for the "respect" sense and "ommazh" for the work of art sense.

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  51. In my kind of AmE the word "hommage" still feels very French. If I ever had to say it, I think I'd say omAHZH". All this talk about "hommage" puts me in mind of what Eeyore said about "bonhommie": "French word, meaning 'bonhommie'".

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  52. This was a wonderfully informative read! As an American living in Germany, I've encountered many new "Britishisms." I'm fascinated by where words and pronunciations come from, so this post and others have been right up my alley! Thanks!

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  53. "It's strange (and frankly condescending) to suggest that American children need to be taught specifically how to say 'herb'..."
    But he wasn't suggesting that they needed to be taught, only that they actually were.

    "Mitchell went to Cambridge University ... because he was rejected by Oxford."
    We should make allowances for people who have suffered deprivation in their youth.

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  54. "Who pronounces the L in calf?"
    People in Wiltshire/Somerset, as also with "psalm" and the name of the town Calne.

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  55. ". Your use of aitch wasn't the problem."
    That's interesting. Who pronounces the P in "no"?

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  56. Donka Minkova is good on this in A Historical Phonology of English.

    Early English dropped some [h-] sounds and some letters before a vowel at the at the beginning of words. For native vocab, it was unstressed words like 'ave, 'im, 'e, 'er For borrowed French vocab, the spelling was copied, but only words from Germanic were pronounced with [h-] such as haste, hardy, heron, herald. Romance words were spelled with h- but pronounced without a [h-] sound e.g. horrible, humour, hermit, humble.

    The rule for aspirating only stressed syllables seems to have extended to foreign words such as history and the adjective sometimes spelled historic.

    After the introduction of printing and standardised spelling, practices and attitudes changed:

    QUOTE
    Until the beginning of the sixteenth century there was no evidence of of association between h-dropping and social and educational status, but the attitudes began to shift in the seventeenth century, and by the eighteenth century [h]-lessness was stigmatised in both native and borrowed words. In spelling, most of the borrowed words kept initial ; the expanding community of literate speakers must have considered spelling authoritative enough for the reinstatement of initial [h-] in words with an etymological and orthographic . ... By the end of the eighteenth century, only a set of frequently used Romance loans in which the spelling was preserved were considered legitimate without initial [h-].
    UNQUOTE

    She quotes the influential 1791 dictionary by John Walker which — successfully —told people how they must pronounce words:

    QUOTE
    At the beginning of words it is always sounded, except in heir, heiress, honest, honestly, honour, honourable, herb, herbage, hospital, hostler, hour, humble, humour, humorous, humorousness. Ben Johnson leaves out the h in host and classes it in this respect with honest.
    UNQUOTE

    The 1854 prescription by The Hon. Henry H. is remarkably similar. Interestingly, neither list contains hotel. Could it have been a fashion that caught on late in the nineteenth century?

    Of the Walker list, Minkova comments

    QUOTE
    Today heir, honest and hour (and herb in AmE) and some of their cognates are the only surviving instances of a once widespread phonetic attrition.
    UNQUOTE

    But not all cognates:

    heir BUT heritage, inherit
    honest BUT honorarium
    hour BUT horary, horology

    ReplyDelete
  57. Influenced by the Donka Minkova book, I used the convention of angle brackets around a spelling —in this case a single letter.. Blogger doesn't like this. It thinks it's illegal HTML and deletes it. The second sentence in my post above should read:

    Early English dropped some [h-] sounds and some h-letters before a vowel at the at the beginning of words.

    ReplyDelete
  58. Another correction.

    Although I repeatedly rejected the re-interpretation by my spellchecker, it managed to have the last word. What I typed — several times — was

    The rule for aspirating only stressed syllables seems to have extended to foreign words such as history and the adjective sometimes spelled istoric [SIC].

    If I understand correctly, it's frequent early spellings
    such as orrible, umour, ermit, umble that constitute the evidence for general early [h]-less pronunciation of most words spelled with h- in French.

    ReplyDelete
  59. Mr. Crosbie: In the U.S. at least, "honorarium" would be pronounced without the h sound.

    ReplyDelete
  60. James Kabala

    Yes, Professor Minkova seems to have got that one wrong. I don't think that invalidates the rest of her account, though.

    ReplyDelete
  61. One way it is possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year is if you are applying for a choral or organ scholarship. I don’t know if David Mitchell did.

    ReplyDelete
  62. I think David Mitchell did work in lexicography for a while, didn't he? But I would suggest that anything on You Tube is not meant to be taken too seriously - he is quite famous (in the UK, at least) as a comedian.

    ReplyDelete

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)