The silence of the H’s and the nastiness of the narg

Two recent One Big Happy strips on linguistic themes, one phonological / orthographic, the other semantic / pragmatic:



H appropriate. Joe’s question to his father is about what’s most often called in English silent H (as in hour) — as opposed to pronounced H (as in house). For whatever reason, his father has forgotten the technical terms, but appears to recall that French has technical terms for a roughly similar (but more complex) phenomenon involving the letter H, and that the terms in French have the predominant French word order N + Adj (rather than Adj + N as in English): H muet (‘mute, silent H’) vs. H aspiré (‘aspirated H’).

So he wings it and just makes something up, on the French N + Adj pattern — but invents a term that is in fact a clever pun: H appropriate, punning on age-appropriate (voiceless affricate in the first, voiced in the second).

Four things here: the parental (especially paternal) inclination to just make up answers to kids’ questions when they don’t know the answers (better this than admit ignorance), and to engage in word play; the compound adjective age-appropriate; silent H in English orthography; and the H muet – H aspiré distinction in French.

Thing 1. “I make things up, you know”, which could be the Dad’s Watchword, but is in fact the slogan of the devious character the Golux in James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks (discussion in my 7/29/13 posting “Marc Simont (and James Thurber)”).

Thing 2. From NOAD:

adj. age-appropriate: suitable for a particular age or age group: some of her outfits should be more age-appropriate | the organization provides age-appropriate materials for teachers to use in their classrooms.

OED3 (Sept. 2012) has its first cite in 1955. The expression is especially used for things suitable for children of particular age groups.

Thing 3. The Oxford Dictionary site on words with silent H:

H is silent in many English words, for various reasons. Sometimes it is because of the word’s derivation (e.g. messiah from Hebrew or rhapsody from Greek); sometimes it is as a result of elision (e.g. shepherd, exhaust). [On word-initial H:] The words hour and honest come from French, and in these cases English took over the French pronunciation as well as the word. Not all such words that have come into English from French still have a silent h, however. Over the centuries we have come to pronounce the h in words like horrible, hospital, host, human, and humour.

(Then there’s the H in herb and herbal, which is pronounced in BrE, silent in AmE.)

Thing 4, H muet ‘mute, silent’ vs. H aspiré ‘aspirated’ in French. Word-initial H is not pronounced in modern French, but words with this initial letter fall into two groups, those with mute H (H muet) and those with aspirated H (H aspiré). The former words act just like vowel-initial words (and condition liaison and elision), while the latter words act like consonant-inital words, even though no consonant is pronounced (so they block liaison and elision)

Liaison with vowel in arbre ‘tree’; hiatus (V + V between words) not acceptable:

– nos arbres /nozaʁbʁ/, but */noaʁbʁ/ ‘our trees’ (nos has no /z/ before a consonant)

Liaison with mute h in habits ‘clothes’; hiatus not acceptable:

– nos habits /nozabi/, but */noabi/ ‘our clothes’

No liaison with aspirated h in héro ‘hero’; instead, hiatus:

– nos héros */nozeʁo/, but instead /noeʁo/ ‘our heroes’


Elision with vowel in arbre ‘tree’; hiatus not acceptable:

– l’arbre /laʁbʁ/, but *le arbre /ləaʁbʁ/ ‘the tree’

Elision with mute h in hiver ‘winter’; hiatus not acceptable:

– l’hiver /livɛʁ/, but *le hiver /ləivɛʁ/ ‘the winter’

No elision with aspirated h in hibou ‘owl’; instead, hiatus:

– not *l’hibou /libu/, but instead le hibou /ləibu/ ‘the owl’

You just have to learn which words (mostly words of Germanic origin, but you might not appreciate that) have H aspiré.

Narg. The humor in #2 depends on usages I wrote about in a 11/4 posting “Can you say “cat”? Can you spell “cat”?”: the distinction between linguistic mean (“Muet means ‘mute, silent'”) and natural mean (‘indicate, suggest’, as in “That creaking noise means the roof is about to cave in”), compounded by

a metonymy in which an expression E conveys ‘someone’s producing (saying, writing, etc.) E’, as in “I am not a crook” was the last straw for me. That is, the expression E evokes a situation, and that allows E to serve, among other things, as the subject of natural mean.

So “Narg means that Talbot is a brat” is understood as conveying ‘Talbot’s saying narg indicates that Talbot is a brat’.

Now as to the expression narg. This might have been a sheer invention on cartoonist Rick Detorie’s part, a nasty-sounding noise. Or it might have been intended as a stronger variant of the exclamation arrgh, along the lines of this Urban Dictionary entry:

Narg. A term of frustration/aggravation. A fabulous substitution for a swear. Narg! I forgot my books at school! (by Banditt 4/8/08)

This then extended from simple exclamatory use to service as a nasty intensive modifier, as in “you stupid narg face!”

One Response to “The silence of the H’s and the nastiness of the narg”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    My first high-school French text, in its lesson devoted to the two varieties of h, had a group of example sentences, of which the only one I remember was devoted exclusively to h aspiré: Le hibou hue au haut du hangar. (“The owl hoots at the top of the barn.”)

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