Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Letter ‘H’ vs. The French

Hi, hello, and how are you today?

The “h” sound – so basic to English – is such a difficult sound for people whose language does not include it. The French, for instance, have a tough time with it. Though the letter “h” is included in their alphabet and appears in many words (heure, honneur, herbe, etc.), the breathy English “h” is simply silent in French.

The letter H goes back to the ancient Egyptians and archaic Greeks (800-450 BC), with its symbol thought to represent a fence or posts. From there, it passed into Old Semitic, Phoenician, Etruscan, and Latin, where it had the “ha” sound we recognize in English. H was likewise originally pronounced in early Latin-based languages but then lost over time. In Spanish, however, other h-sounding letters emerged – like x, j, and sometimes g; in current Portuguese, “r” sounds like “h” – with Roberto becoming “Hoberto” and rock and roll, sounding like “hock and holl.”

H is also found in Germanic languages, which includes English, and that’s where we get most of our h-words, like “house,” “here,” “how,” and “heart.” There are just a handful of h-words in English that have a silent h -- hour, honor, honest, heir, and herb – as a nod to their French ancestry. 

Of all the letters in the alphabet, the H stands out for being dropped and added and dropped and added again, or not, in such a wide variety of languages -- from dialects of Dutch, Norwegian, and Belorussian to cockney English and northern Irish. The standard English name of the letter itself (“eitch” – not “heitch”) reflects this ambivalence, since the H in its name is silent.

When spoken, H is actually a sound called a “fricative,” a category including f, v, and z; fricatives are produced by partially blocking the flow of air from the vocal passage; this tends to limit the amount of air let out of the mouth, which is a good thing. Treating H as an exhalation -- a natural tendency among French speakers learning English -- can lead to trouble: for example, exhaling the H’s in the line, “In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen” (from the musical “My Fair Lady”) could easily induce hyperventilation.

Still, until I started teaching, I had never paid much attention to H. I hand it to my French students whose difficulty pronouncing h-words has highlighted the hidden havoc this particular sound can wreak. My longtime French friend, Helene (pronounced sans h, as “ay-len”) was the first to tip me off to this trouble when she would say, “I’ll see you in “alf an how’r” (not “half an hour”).

That is, Helene could say the h-sound but tended to place it where it was not wanted and not say it where it was. Such difficulties have become more apparent the more I teach. A sentence like, “Amy will take her to the airport in half an hour,” often comes out as, “Haimy will take air to zee hairport in alf an how’r.”
When a sentence starts with a vowel, such as in the “Amy” sentence above, adding the initial H seems instinctive; thus, a sentence like, “It’s nice to see you,” becomes, “Heets nice to see you.” But practice, focus, and a smidgen of breath-holding helps modify that particular tendency.

On the other hand, when an English sentence is supposed to start with an h-sound, Francophones tend to drop it: with “How are you?” or “Here he is,” for example, typically come out as “Eere ‘e his” and “Ow har you?” (“How” is doubly tough for the French because not only does the “h” sound not exist in their language, neither does the “ow” sound -- not even to express pain: when we say “Ow!” they say “Ai!”)

This “h-reversal” could be caused by the speaker’s attempting to make the h-sound by exhaling -- but who ends up inhaling before the h-word and exhaling on the next word instead. Problems arise when equal weight is given to each word – thus, each word becomes its own special landmine, with all the arrhythmic English words and exhaling and inhaling. A sentence like, “I burned my arm on the oven the other night,” which does not even have an h-word in it, can still produce several: “Hi burned my harm on zee hoven zee hozzerh night.”

One method I use for helping students suppress the unwanted “h” is to have them group the words as we say them – with some words and syllables stressed and others barely acknowledged, which sounds like: AMy’ll take’erto th’AIRportin HalfnOWr. To start, I begin with two-word combinations where the end-sound of the first word, when extended, can connect to the initial sound of the second: “how-w-are;” or “my-y-y-arm.” The long “e” sound, when extended, produces a “y” sound that is easily linked: “he is” becomes “hee-y-izz;” “the other” becomes “theee-y-other.”

The same method helps with other word combinations where the second word starts with a vowel, such as: “looked at” which becomes “look-t-at;” or “tried it,” which becomes “try-d-it.” This is similar to the verbal liaisons that we are taught when learning French: “Comment-t-allez vous?” and “Vous-z-etes;” and when done in either language, the result is more natural-sounding and fluid.

There are sounds in every language that confound non-native speakers. That’s partly what creates a foreign accent – and is also an eye-opener for the native speaker who takes the mother tongue for granted. Given that, I will end this piece with a question I found on Google that made me laff-f-out loud. To the French speaker who answered, I give a huge, heartfelt, high-fiving, “Hurray!”

Why can't French people say the "h" sound?
Apparently, the sound does not exist in their language? Why is this so? What the hell kind of language doesn't have the "h" sound? It's the sound that humans make when they inhale and exhale. They make that sound when they laugh. It's intrinsic to the human species, so how can anybody not be able to make that sound? Why do they say 'ockey and 'amburger?

French people CAN make the sound. You are very right, we make that sound when breathing and laughing. When you are writing a text in French and you want to write the laughing sound, you do use hahahahhhaha because that is how it sounds.

However, French is a very flowing language. If they pronounced the 'h's French would sound terrible, all broken up like English. They simply do not say the 'h' because it sounds ugly with the beautiful flowing sound of French.

If you know someone who speaks French, get them to say ''J'ai joué au hockey en mangeant un hamburger'' the way a normal French person would, without pronouncing the ''h''s of hockey and hamburger. Then get them to say the sentence again, pronouncing the ''h''s. You will see that it will sound like an ugly mixture of German and French if they do.

So that is why they don't say the ''h'' sound.

Fluent French speaker with a good lot of common sense.
2 years ago