Thursday, June 04, 2015


Let's hear it for breathing. The letter H is a funny thing, funny peculiar not funny haha. It poses formally as an exhalation of breath, and even that is dropped at the start of words in some dialects, such as British. But then it goes behind the scenes and collaborates with other letters to pervert their purposes and its own and produce a variety of sounds, many of which, in a rational universe, would have their own unique letters. Take H with C as in, e.g., "church." Why couldn't that sound be assigned to C, which is otherwise such a shameless fraud, masquerading as K or S? Speaking of S, how about H with it, producing a sound that has only one meaning in society, aka STFU. I ask you, what does that sound have to do with either S or H (beyond a certain sibilance)? Then there is H with T, another fundamental sound element of English but also one not appearing everywhere and thus notoriously difficult for native speakers of some other languages, such as many Asian derivatives. Yet more frauds: H with G and H with P, as in "laugh" or "physiology," which are perfectly adequately covered by F. And can anyone anywhere explain the pairing with W. Wut? Oh, H, that sly shape-shifting ape-shaped letter, going on its rounds about the language, sowing trouble and confusion wherever it goes. How about that debate over the indefinite article? Some say it is without exception "a," while others argue for "an" in certain specific situations, such as "history." They seem to believe that "an history of New England" somehow sounds "better," which I happen to believe is a classist reverse-engineered artifact of that H-dropping British accent we spoke of a moment ago, which also sounds "better" to some ears. Can you detect I am an absolutist on this question? It's "a," only, for words beginning with H. Except when it is absolutely silent, as in "honor." Oh bother. Speaking of foreign noises in foreign languages, I have the impression that H in Arabic and perhaps other languages of the Middle East and elsewhere, can take on that non-vocalized rasping throat-clearing sound of the German "ch." We don't have much of that in English, the way other languages don't have much of "th." I do like the simplicity of the primary sound of H, that little exhalation of carbon dioxide. What else is close in terms of basic building blocks of the sounds a human mouth can produce? Perhaps S, or, on the vocalized front, U, by which I mean the schwa, "uhh." Hey, look, there are Hs aplenty to inflect solo vowel noises too: "ah," "eh," "oh," "uh." Quick: Which one of these things is not like the others? That's right, "eh," which is pronounced much less closely to its original vowel, usually rhyming with "gray," essentially a speech noise that asks either for confirmation of what was just said, or a request to another speaker to repeat something because the user is not sure he or she heard it correctly. H—busier with part-time work than you perhaps suspected.

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