#8: Is ‘h’ Magical Too?

There have been plenty of references to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and enough content in this series of linguistical articles to support its use instead of confusing people with English’s mightily eccentric orthography.  After talking at length about graphemes consisting of one, two, or even three graphs (the smallest contrastive unit within a writing system), we can see that combination letters are very confusing.  We have many digraphs in English and also a letter with magical effects in vowels, but now we turn to <h> because here is the list of the strangeness that can occur with the addition of this  letter…

  1. <ph>               /φ/ –> /f/
  2. <ch>               /x/ –> /k/
  3. <wh>              /w/ or /ʍ/ –>/w/
  4. <sh>                /ʃ/ –> /ʃ/
  5. <ch>               /ʃ/ –> /ʃ/
  6. <ch>               /x/ or /k/ –> /ʧ/
  7. <ch>               /ʤ/ –> /ʤ/
  8. <gh>               /?/ –> /?/          (<ough> : <ȝ>, /x/, /k/, or /p/ –> /ə/, /f/, /uː/, /ɔː/, or /ʊ/)
  9. <th>                <þ> –>/θ/
  10. <th>                <ð> –> /ð/

So, like with magic ‘e’, we seem to have arrived at some form of consonantal equivalent that enters like a juggernaut to overpower the established orthographic rules.  We can clearly notice that ‘h’ is having a relatively large effect on letters in no less than ten examples and it often, in some dialects, acts as a silent letter when occurring word-initially – as with most things I explore, there are even greater levels of intricacy to be delved into.  For now, let’s focus on one to three (next time’s topics will be some of the others) and let us call this, for now, magic ‘h’.

The first example of magic ‘h’ oddness is with the digraph <ph>, which I have previously explained is due to originating from Greek where morphemes; an intermediary level between syllable and word, were taken from the Greek lexicon and used in English.  The word ‘telephone’ was made by using Greek morphemes but were in fact stuck together in English and was useful enough for Greek to take back the word and use it for themselves.  The phonetic quality in <ph> is more of a softer ‘f’ represented in the IPA by none other than what the symbol would itself be in Greek, phi, or /φ/.  It is also why some may say <f> is harder than <ph> because phonetically, it is true as the teeth are not used in /φ/, only the upper and lower lips.

The second magic ‘h’ digraph is of <ch> which is also another taken from the Greek lexicon – a large portion of contemporary English words have etymological roots in Greek.  This is another commonplace digraph appearing in the likes of  ‘Christmas’, ‘chaos’, and ‘archaeology’.  The sound in English is a /k/ sound whilst in Greek, the sound could be described as softer once again as it is a /x/ sound.  The placement of the sound still occurs at the soft part of the palate known as the velum but instead of having a build-up of pressure that is the released (a plosive sound), it is the sound of air rushing through a restricted space (a fricative) in the Greek tongue.  Stranger still, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish varieties of English still retain this sound from their Celtic roots from words like ‘loch’ to this day and is present in the Gaelic alphabets as a distinct sound.  It was even common in Middle English about six or so centuries ago, so quite how we mispronounced this digraph incorrectly when the sound should, in theory, have been readily available is a curiosity to me.

Thirdly, <wh>.  Why do some ‘w’-words contain our friend, magic ‘h’, and others not?  There is a simple reason, once upon a time in yesteryear there was a phonetic distinction between the two (and one that is still practised in Scottish varieties of English to this day).  One is a voiced sound and the other isn’t.  One is an approximant (a gliding sort of sound) and the other is a fricative.  The voiced approximant is written as /w/ and the voiceless fricative as /ʍ/.  The ‘h’ appears to be silent for most English dialects, but the antique pronunciation does tend to creep in now and then for either comedic or stylistic purposes.  You can think of it as swapping the two letters in the digraph to try and pronounce it so that the written word ‘what’ becomes spoken word ‘hwat’.  The words ‘who, why, where, when, whether’ are all examples of the fricative, /ʍ/, an older pronunciation for the digraph that has become /w/, and words lacking this ‘h’ are not able to be pronounced this way seen as they lack the orthographic and phonological fossil.  Seen as /ʍ/ is similar to /x/ and most English speakers can pronounce /ʍ/ relatively easily, it’s still a mystery as to why /x/ fell out of fashion and into a more complicated territory for the lay speaker.  Nonetheless, if anyone pronounces ‘weather’ as ‘hweather’, please do correct them hwatever you do.

Next time, I shall cover <sh>, <ch>, again, another <ch>, and, yet another <ch>.

– DP, Linguistics student

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