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?


  • 1
    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. Apr 9 '15 at 6:01

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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.