Attititudes and attributions

A Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum  that started with the pronunciation of the composer Sibelius’s name in Finnish has diverged in many directions, one of them having to do with word-initial [h] in varieties of English. The presence or absence of this [h] is noticeable to most speakers, since the difference is phonemic, potentially distinguishing otherwise identical words (ham vs. am, heart vs. art, hail vs. ail, etc.). You are especially likely to notice an [h] where you don’t have one yourself or the absence of [h] where you have one yourself. Here’s the commenter Noetica on the subject:

In Australia we notice the American way with ‘erbs, and it sounds strange and pretentious to us.

This comment, clearly from someone who has an initial [h] in herb, both expresses an attitude about the (common American) [h]-less variant (“it sounds strange”) and attributes a motive to those who use it (it sounds “pretentious”). The attribution of pretentiousness was a surprise to me; it’s a reversal of the usual judgements about [h]-less herb from people who have an [h] in this word.Some historical background. English borrowed a number of words from French that were spelled with an initial H but had no [h] in their pronunciation (since French lacked [h], and still does). In some such words, an [h] was introduced into the pronunciation from the spelling; hotel picked up an [h], honor did not. For a few words, the presence or absence of [h] varies from dialect to dialect. Herb (also herbal) is one such word; in general, British English has an [h] in this word, American English does not. (The OED gives only the pronunciation with [h], while American dictionaries usually give both pronunciations, and sometimes note the British/American split.)

Complicating the picture is the fact that some non-standard varieties of British English have lost initial [h] (variably or generally), even in words like happy and hot that had them throughout the history of English. This is a well-known feature of Cockney English (hence Eliza Doolittle getting drilled by Henry Higgins on “In Hertford, Hereford and Hamsphire, hurricanes hardly happen”).

The sociolinguistic result is that speakers of standard British English are inclined to judge absence of [h] in words that they have an [h] in as “low-class” and to attribute this absence of [h] to “laziness”. I’ve had British colleagues express astonishment that I, a distinguished professor of linguistics, would “drop the h” in herb; it’s so, well, vulgar.

Now, suppose you’re unfamiliar with this social picture, but notice that someone else’s variant is different from yours and judge that variant to be “strange” or even “wrong”. You could leave it at that, but most people cast about for some explanation of why others say “wrong” things. The inventory of such explanations, beyond inadvertent error, is not very large: ignorance (they weren’t taught properly, they didn’t listen, they neglected to look it up), laziness, and pretentiousness (they’re trying to sound better than they really are, they’re trying to impress people) are at the top of this list. It’s surprising how often people fix on this last account, usually in the absence of any evidence in its favor.

8 Responses to “Attititudes and attributions”

  1. jlundell Says:

    The New Oxford American, in its OS X electronic version, gives (h)ərb and includes this note:

    Although herb has always been spelled with an h, pronunciation without it was usual in British English until the 19th cent. and is still standard in the U.S.

  2. Heather Says:

    And the fact that the choice between “a” and “an” depends on whether the initial “h” in the following word is pronounced tends to amplify the distinction even more. It reminds me of the MASH episode where Hawkeye lampoons Charles Emerson Winchester’s Boston accent by asking for “an harmonica”. Hilarious.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    Since [h]-dropping is not a feature of Australian English, the “vulgar” response of English listeners is not triggered. The “pretentious” response is associated with choosing a foreign-language pronunciation over a nativized one.

    Also, I think “You are especially likely to notice an [h]” should read “You are especially likely to notice a [h]”, since “[h]” refers to the sound rather than the letter and One Shouldn’t Confuse Sounds With Symbols.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly about “an [h]”: I wrote “an” because “[h]” is read as “aitch”, not as the sound [h]. This is a case in which sounds are referred to by the names of the symbols that represent them, and “a” and “an” are distributed according to the resulting phonological context. So it’s “an [f], an [l], an [m], an [n], an [s]”.

  5. The Ridger Says:

    As someone who says “an historian” and “a history” I get a lot of that … it’s odd how much attitude is imputed to a speech pattern.

  6. MattGordon Says:

    A similar example is found with the pronunciation of ‘aunt.’ Many white midwesterners (and others?) find the use of /a/ here pretentious, probably b/c that alternation is associated with Brit. English in other “broad a” words. But, I’ve heard African Americans report feeling that the /æ/ pronunciation (by African Americans) is the pretentious one, presumably b/c /a/ is the most common phoneme for this word in AAE and maybe b/c /æ/ is associated with white speech.

  7. David W. Fenton Says:

    A good friend of mine is British but his entire elementary education was in French. He explained the “pretentious” aspect of the American pronunciation of “herb” thus:

    1. in French, it’s pronounced without the initial h, but with a different vowel sound (I’m no linguist, so I’ll transcribe it as roughly “airb”).

    2. Americans have borrowed the dropped initial h but Americanized the vowel sound.

    Thus, it’s the rube who knows enough to adopt part of the “sophisticated” pronunciation, but not smart enough to get it entirely right.

    David W. Fenton

  8. masseylinguists Says:

    An h or a h? Perhaps Mollymooly and arnolzwicky are both right, especially if Mollymooly is referring to the pronunciation of the letter name in Australian English (and NZ English too) as ‘haitch’. I have heard this referred to as the ‘Catholic h’ and suggestions that it reflects different pronunciations of Irish Catholic and Protestant of this letter name. I cannot verify this is true, but have certainly heard both variants in Australia and Nw Zealand

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