H-dropping or aitch-dropping is the deletion of the voiceless glottal fricative or "H sound", [h]. The phenomenon is common in many dialects of English, and is also found in certain other languages, either as a purely historical development or as a contemporary difference between dialects. Although common in most regions of England and in some other English-speaking countries, H-dropping is often stigmatized and perceived as a sign of careless or uneducated speech.
The reverse phenomenon, H-insertion or H-adding, is found in certain situations, sometimes as a hypercorrection by H-dropping speakers, and sometimes as a spelling pronunciation or out of perceived etymological correctness.
In Old English phonology, the sounds [h], [x] and [ç] (described respectively as glottal, velar and palatal voiceless fricatives) are taken to be allophones of a single phoneme /h/. The [h] sound appeared at the start of a syllable, either alone or in a cluster with another consonant. The other two sounds were used in the syllable coda ([x] after back vowels and [ç] after front vowels).
The instances of /h/ in coda position were lost during the Middle English and Early Modern English periods, although they are still reflected in the spelling of words such as taught (now pronounced like taut) and weight (now pronounced in most accents like wait). Most of the initial clusters involving /h/ also disappeared (see H-cluster reductions). As a result, in the standard varieties of Modern English, the only position in which /h/ can occur is at the start of a syllable, either alone (as in hat, house, behind, etc.), in the cluster /hj/ (as in huge), or (for a minority of speakers) in the cluster /hw/ (as in whine if pronounced differently from wine). The usual realizations of the latter two clusters are [ç] and [ʍ] (see English phonology).
The phenomenon of H-dropping considered as a feature of contemporary English is the omission, in certain accents and dialects, of this syllable-initial /h/, either alone or in the cluster /hj/. (For the cluster /hw/ and its reduction, see Pronunciation of English ⟨wh⟩.)
H-dropping, in certain accents and dialects of Modern English, causes words like harm, heat, and behind to be pronounced arm, eat, and be-ind (though in some dialects an [h] may appear in behind to prevent hiatus – see below).
Cases of H-dropping occur in all English dialects in the weak forms of function words like he, him, her, his, had, and have. The pronoun it is a product of historical H-dropping – the older hit survives as an emphatic form in a few dialects such as Southern American English, and in the Scots language. Because the /h/ of unstressed have is usually dropped, the word is usually pronounced /əv/ in phrases like should have, would have, and could have. These can be spelled out in informal writing as "should've", "would've", and "could've". Because /əv/ is also the weak form of the word of, these words are often misspelled as should of, would of and could of.
There is evidence of h-dropping in texts from the 13th century and later. It may originally have arisen through contact with the Norman language, where h-dropping also occurred. Puns which rely on the possible omission of the /h/ sound can be found in works by William Shakespeare and in other Elizabethan era dramas. It is suggested that the phenomenon probably spread from the middle to the lower orders of society, first taking hold in urban centers. It started to become stigmatized, being seen as a sign of poor education, in the 16th or 17th century.
H-dropping occurs (variably) in most of the dialects of the English language in England and Welsh English, including Cockney, West Country English, West Midlands English (including Brummie), most of northern England (including Yorkshire and Lancashire), and Cardiff English. It is not generally found in Scottish English or Hiberno-English. It is also typically absent in certain regions of England, including Northumberland and East Anglia, although it is frequent in the city of Norwich.
H-dropping also occurs in General Australian, most of Jamaican English, and perhaps elsewhere in the Caribbean English (including some of The Bahamas). It is not generally found in North American English, although it has been reported in Newfoundland (outside the Avalon Peninsula). However, dropping of /h/ from the cluster /hj/ (so that human is pronounced /'juːmən/) is found in some American dialects, as well as in parts of Ireland – see reduction of /hj/.
Social distribution and stigmatization
H-dropping, in the countries and regions in which it is prevalent, occurs mainly in working-class accents. Studies have shown it to be significantly more frequent in lower than in higher social groups. It is not a feature of RP (the prestige accent of England), or even of "Near-RP", a variant of RP that includes some regional features. This does not apply, however, to the dropping of /h/ in weak forms of words like his and her, as described above – this is normal in all varieties of English.
H-dropping in English is widely stigmatized, being perceived as a sign of poor or uneducated speech, and discouraged by schoolteachers. John Wells writes that it seems to be "the single most powerful pronunciation shibboleth in England."
Use and status of the H-sound in H-dropping dialects
In fully H-dropping dialects, that is, in dialects without a phonemic /h/, the sound [h] may still occur but with uses other than distinguishing words. An epenthetic [h] may be used to avoid hiatus, so that for example the egg is pronounced the hegg. It may also be used when any vowel-initial word is emphasized, so that horse /ˈɔːs/ (assuming the dialect is also non-rhotic) and ass /ˈæs/ may be pronounced [ˈˈhɔːs] and [ˈˈhæs] in emphatic utterances. That is, [h] has become an allophone of the zero onset in these dialects.
For many H-dropping speakers, however, a phonological /h/ appears to be present, even if it is not usually realized – that is, they know which words "should" have an /h/, and have a greater tendency to pronounce an [h] in those words than in other words beginning with a vowel. Insertion of [h] may occur as a means of emphasis, as noted above, and also as a response to the formality of a situation. Sandhi phenomena may also indicate a speaker's awareness of the presence of an /h/ – for example, some speakers might say "a edge" (rather than "an edge") for a hedge, and might omit the linking R before an initial vowel resulting from a dropped H.
It is likely that the phonemic system of children in H-dropping areas lacks an /h/ entirely, but that social and educational pressures lead to the incorporation of an (inconsistently realized) /h/ into the system by the time of adulthood.
The opposite of H-dropping, called H-insertion or H-adding, sometimes occurs as a hypercorrection in typically H-dropping accents of English. It is commonly noted in literature from late Victorian times to the early 20th century that some lower-class people consistently drop h in words that should have it, while adding h to words that should not have it. An example from the musical My Fair Lady is, "In 'Artford, 'Ereford, and 'Ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly hever 'appen". Another is in C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew: "Three cheers for the Hempress of Colney 'Atch". In practice, however, it would appear that h-adding is more of a stylistic prosodic effect, being found on some words receiving particular emphasis, regardless of whether those words are h-initial or vowel-initial in the standard language.
Some English words borrowed from French begin with the letter ⟨h⟩ but not with the sound /h/. Examples include hour, heir, hono(u)r and honest. In some cases, spelling pronunciation has introduced the sound /h/ into such words, as in humble, hotel and (for most speakers) historic. Spelling pronunciation has also added /h/ to the British English pronunciation of herb, /hɜːb/, while American English retains the older pronunciation /ɝb/. Etymology may also serve as a motivation for H-addition, as in the words horrible, habit and harmony; these were borrowed into Middle English from French without an /h/ (orribel, abit, armonie), but all three derive from Latin words with an /h/ and would later acquire an /h/ in English as an etymological "correction". The name of the letter H itself, "aitch", is subject to H-insertion in some dialects, where it is pronounced "haitch".
List of homophones resulting from H-dropping
The following is a list of some pairs of English words which may become homophones when H-dropping occurs. (To view the list, click "show".) See also the list of H-dropping homophones in Wiktionary.
In other languages
Processes of H-dropping have occurred in various languages at certain times, and in some cases, they remain as distinguishing features between dialects, as in English. Many Dutch dialects, especially the southern ones, feature H-dropping. The dialects of Zeeland, West Flanders and North Brabant have lost /h/ as a phonemic consonant but use [h] to avoid hiatus and to signal emphasis, much as in the H-dropping dialects of English. H-dropping is also found in some North Germanic languages, for instance Elfdalian and the dialect of Roslagen, where it is found already in Old East Norse. Loss of /h/ has also occurred in some Serbian dialects.
The phoneme /h/ was lost in Late Latin, the ancestor of the modern Romance languages. Interestingly, both French and Spanish acquired new initial /h/ in medieval times, but they were later lost in both languages in a "second round" of H-dropping. (However, some dialects of Spanish have reacquired /h/ from Spanish /x/ and Latin /f/.)
- David D. Murison, The Guid Scots Tongue, Blackwodd 1977, p. 39.
- Milroy, J., "On the Sociolinguistic History of H-dropping in English", in Current topics in English historical linguistics, Odense UP, 1983.
- Milroy, L., Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English, Routledge 2002, p. 17.
- Upton, C., Widdowson, J.D.A., An Atlas of English Dialects, Routledge 2006, pp. 58–59.
- Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2002). The Phonetics of Dutch and English (PDF) (5 ed.). Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 290–302.
- Wells, J.C., Accents of English, CUP 1982, pp. 564, 568–69, 589, 594, 622.
- Wells (1982), pp. 254, 300.
- Wells (1982), p. 254
- Wells (1982), p. 322.
- Wells (1982), p. 254.
- "World of words - Oxford Dictionaries Online". Askoxford.com. Retrieved 2013-08-01.
- "h". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)