H-Dropping (Pronunciation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Definition

In English grammar, h-dropping is a type of elision marked by the omission of the initial /h/ sound in words such as happy, hotel, and honor. Also called the dropped aitch.

H-dropping is common in many dialects of British English.

Examples and Observations

  • "'I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,' said Uriah Heep, modestly; 'let the other be where he may. My mother is likewise a very umble person.'"

    (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850)

  • "He beamed as he had never beamed, even on his stepmother.

    "'My word,' she said, 'but you 'ave grown.'

    "David did not wince at the dropped aitch."

    (Gilbert Cannan, Devious Ways. Duffield, 1910)

  • "'I don't do much reading myself,' he said. 'Don't 'ave the time.' I was overwhelmed at the dropped aitch. Such mutilation of language was becoming, no doubt, in a grocer or an insurance agent, or some such clod, but utterly improper in one who handled books."

    (St. John Greer Ervine, "Ambition." Eight o'Clock and Other Studies. Macmillan, 1915)

  • "Robin opened the door, went straight up to the very dark and very thin man whom he saw sitting by the fire, and, staring at this man with intensity, lifted up his face, at the same time saying:

    "'Ullo, Fa!'

    "There was a dropped aitch for which nurse, who was very choice in her English, would undoubtedly have rebuked him had she been present."

    (Robert Hichens, In the Wilderness. Frederick & Stokes, 1917)

    Dropping One's Aitches in England

    (Graeme Trousdale, An Introduction to English Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

    • "Writing in 1873, Thomas Kington-Oliphant referred to 'h' as 'the fatal letter': dropping it was a 'hideous barbarism.' A century later, the phonetician John Wells wrote that dropping one's aitches had become 'the single most powerful pronunciation shibboleth in England'--a 'ready marker of social difference, a symbol of the social divide,' as Lynda Mugglestone added. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle described the weather in three English counties: 'in 'artford, 'ereford and 'ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen' ('artford = Hertford, generally pronounced as 'Hartford'). Indeed, Cockneys and others on the wrong side of the divide persist in omitting the 'h' where it 'ought' to appear, and sometimes inserting it where it shouldn't ('bring the heggs into the 'ouse, would you?'). Attempting to remedy these 'errors,' speakers may occasionally make embarrassing hypercorrections: pronouncing heir as if it were hair or hare, for example."

      (John Edwards, Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2013)

      "London and Southeastern accents have sociolinguistically variable H dropping (see Tollfree 1999: 172-174). The zero form tends to be avoided by middle-class speakers, except in contexts in which H dropping is 'licensed' in virtually all British accents (in unstressed pronouns and verbs such as his, her, him, have, had, etc.)."

      (Ulrike Altendorf and Dominic Watt, "The Dialects in the South of England: Phonology." A Handbook of Varieties of English: Phonology, Volume 2, ed. by Bernd Kortmann et al. Walter de Gruyter, 2004)

    • "[M]any speakers in the south-east [of England] are abandoning H-dropping: evidence from Milton Keynes and Reading (Williams and Kerswill 1999), and particularly from ethnic minority groups in working-class areas of inner London, suggests that (h):[h] variants are more frequently attested in contemporary urban southern British English."

      (Graeme Trousdale, An Introduction to English Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

    The Most Contentious Letter in the Alphabet

    "Perhaps the letter H was doomed from the start: given that the sound we associate with H is so slight (a little outbreath), there has been debate since at least AD 500 whether it was a true letter or not. In England, the most up-to-date research suggests that some 13th-century dialects were h-dropping, but by the time elocution experts came along in the 18th century, they were pointing out what a crime it is. And then received wisdom shifted, again: by 1858, if I wanted to speak correctly, I should have said 'erb,' 'ospital' and 'umble.'

    "The world is full of people laying down the law about the 'correct' choice: is it 'a hotel' or 'an otel'; is it 'a historian' or 'an historian'? But there is no single correct version.

    You choose. We have no academy to rule on these matters and, even if we did, it would have only marginal effect. When people object to the way others speak, it rarely has any linguistic logic. It is nearly always because of the way that a particular linguistic feature is seen as belonging to a cluster of disliked social features."

    (Michael Rosen, "Why H Is the Most Contentious Letter in the Alphabet." The Guardian [UK], November 4, 2013)

    Dropped Aitches in Words Beginning With Wh-

    "In the nineteenth century, the aitches began to disappear from all the words beginning with hw- (spelled wh-, of course), at least in England. Today even the most careful speakers in England pronounce which just like witch, whales just like Wales, and whine just like wine. There is still, however, a kind of dim folk memory that the pronunciation with h is more elegant, and I believe there are still a few teachers of elocution in England who try to teach their clients to say hwich and hwales, but such pronunciations are now a quaint affectation in England."

    (R.L. Trask, Language: The Basics, 2nd ed. Routledge, 1999)

    Dropped Aitches in American English

    "The ear is likely to deceive us in this matter of aspirates. The rule in American English is that there is practically no such thing as a dropped 'aitch.' William and Mary Morris, whose authority merits respect, say that only five words with a silent aitch remain in American English: heir, honest, hour, honor, herb, and their derivatives. To that list I might add humble, but it's a close call. Some of my revisionist friends would rewrite The Book of Common Prayer so that we would confess our sins with a humble and contrite heart. To my ear, an humble is better. . . . But my ear is an inconstant ear. I would write about a hotel and a happening. John Irving, it follows, wrote an hilarious novel about a hotel in New Hampshire."

    (James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art. Andrews McMeel, 1984)

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    Nordquist, Richard. "H-Dropping (Pronunciation)." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/h-dropping-pronunciation-1690828. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 3). H-Dropping (Pronunciation). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/h-dropping-pronunciation-1690828 Nordquist, Richard. "H-Dropping (Pronunciation)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/h-dropping-pronunciation-1690828 (accessed November 22, 2017).