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As I understand it, the [h]-sound in Latin words (habere, prehendere, etc.) was lost before French became a distinct language. But French also has many words of Germanic or onomatopoeic origin that begin with the letter “h”: holà ”hey!”/”stop”, hein “eh”, haler ”haul”, haïr “to hate”, etc.

Is it thought that the “h” in the latter group of words was ever pronounced as [h], or is it simply an etymological spelling (in the case of the Germanic-derived words), or used to indicate hiatus or a glottal stop?

Thanks

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    Well, the "h aspirée" as it is called does often indicate a distinct pronunciation even in Modern French for words in some environments: where there would normally be the phonemic process of liaison or elision in vowel-initial words, many of the Germanic words spelled with h resist this and have hiatus instead. So I think your second option, that it is just an etymological spelling that never indicated a distinction in pronunciation, can be safely eliminated. – brass tacks Apr 9 '15 at 6:01
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From the article Aspirated h on en.wiki:

The name of the now-silent h refers not to aspiration but to its former pronunciation as the voiceless glottal fricative [h] in Old French and in Middle French.

This seems to suggest that at one time [h] was pronounced, for example, in haïr.

This also explains why liaison was not done on these words, because /ʒə.he/ would not contract to */ʒe/.

Later the [h] became silent, but the non-contracted form passed on.

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