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I was reading up on Richard the III, and his exploits just now in Wikipedia — as is the nature of Wiki, that further me led to stumble to Stafford, Duke of Buckingham's page, where I learned that one of the motivations he might have had to kill the Princes, Richard III's nephews, was his inheritance of an estate from his great-great-great grandfather, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton.

Most of that is besides the point. But note these words: 'Ereford and North 'ampton. In My Fair Lady, one of the sentences the protagonist, a linguist, uses to illustrate Eliza's h-dropping is to have her repeat these sentences:

In 'artford, 'ereford, and 'ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen.

Now, it's well known that for a long time among the English people, French held a privileged position as a language indicating education and class; it was even spoken as a primary language in lieu of English amongst the upper class, for a couple hundred years after the Norman conquest. More "prestigious" words in English often come from the French; it's where we get lots of words for governmental and legal bodies, words like conveyances and attorneys general. Moreover, I believe that h in French is rarely aspirated, and those words where it is pronounced are often descended from the Germanic, which English would likely have cognates to, and might have been looked down upon.

So what I'm wondering is: Would French pronunciations of English place names and estates, which perhaps might have included h-dropping, have percolated in a similar way amongst the population as a result of their prestige? If your lord, your bishop, and your judge pronounce Hampton with a French-affected 'ampton, would you have been likely to have pronounced things in the same way yourself? I tried checking Wiki for dates, which would helpful to verify this hypothesis: I know that French died out as a basic communicative language amongst the English in the 15th century, but really have no clue when h-dropping entered the language. Any comments or insights as to its origin would of course be appreciated.

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Are you sure the H in hurricane is not pronounced? –  Alenanno May 1 '11 at 11:53
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@Alenanno I didn't say that was a standard or "correct" pronunciation; I said it was the pronunciation "[the] linguist use[d] to illustrate Eliza's h-dropping", which has been stigmatized as incorrect by some. –  Uticensis May 1 '11 at 11:57
    
yeah I figured it out later you didn't meant it as a standard pronunciation :D –  Alenanno May 1 '11 at 12:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The question of H-dropping in English is a frequently revisited one and the succession of theories put forward could be a topic in its own right.

Without going too far back in time one of the most authoritative sources on the subject is James Milroy who, in a paper titled "On the sociolinguistic history of /h/-dropping in English", published in 1983 proposes an extensive sociolinguistic theory of the phenomenon in the context of Middle English. He is regularly cited by later articles and has penned the dialectology contribution in the volume of the "Cambridge History of the English Language" dedicated to Middle English.

A quick summary of his theory could be that:

  • The phenomenon was widespread in 1300, "in the dialects of Eastern England Kent and from Surrey to Lincolnshire".
  • The tendency was a matter of prestige: "...the regions that were amongst the most important commercially and administratively, and it comes from texts many of which are quite formal in style and learned in content".

  • It can probably be ascribed to some form of contact with French which were perceived as more prestigious because H-dropping "does not seem a 'natural' change in Germanic... even if there were sporadic tendencies in /h/-loss in OE, the French-English contact situation was the single most important influence on its rapid progress in Middle English".

The story does not stop there because later authors have made a number of objections.

  • Although H-dropping was well advanced in Medieval Latin (it is today complete in Italian1) the picture was a different one in Medieval French at the time when MFr and ME were in contact.

  • As in England where different regions showed different situations, the /h/-loss was more pronounced in the South of France (that's where the Latin influence was stronger as well as the largest part of the Plantagenet continental dominion) and in Paris but other parts of France, including Normandy were generally retaining the "h".

  • The later re-insertion of the 'h' in French that occurred under the influence of Latin affected spelling only, not pronunciation, hence the vestigial 'h-muet' - the 'h-aspiré' being actually a hiatus (glottal stop) preventing the 'liaison'. For instance, le homard (from German) has a glottal stop but l'homme - note the elision - (from Latin) doesn't.

  • Some /h/ of Greek origin retain the glottal stop such as le héros. So did words of Germanic origin la harpe, le hareng or non-Indo-European languages le harem, le hamac, les haricots 2.

  • So the Anglo Norman influence should in theory have spared the /h/ in Germanic words.

  • Finally, some Swedish and Germanic dialects have undergone some h-loss.

So it seems that French was just a proxy for a phenomenon that in reality had its roots in Late Latin and that in addition English had an endemic tendency for h-loss of its own. This is confirmed by the more general theory of lenition, a general phenomenon of the natural evolution of languages, of which the /h/-loss is actually only the final stage.

All in all the situation is quite different today. As it happens in Present Day English pronouncing the aitches is much well regarded than dropping them - H dropping now being a mark of London Cockney or Estuary English dialects.

Note 1: complete in Italian... except for a few spelling exceptions (like hanno vs anno).
Note 2: here is a short list of French words requiring the h-aspiré. Most of them are not from Latin or Greek origin.

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See also this chart on lenition. Backing up what you are saying, the transition from h->Ø is not an uncommon one in languages of the world. –  Kosmonaut May 2 '11 at 15:26
    
@Kosmonaut, apparently in French, roughly speaking, the transition was h->Ø for Latin/Greek and h->? for other origins. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 2 '11 at 15:33
    
I assume you are talking about "les haricots" and the like. Since glottal stop is not phonemic in French, I think it still all qualifies as lenition, though maybe these are actually exceptions to that. –  Kosmonaut May 2 '11 at 15:39
    
@Kosmonaut, I do agree, I just meant to distinguish both cases. May be an optional step between h and Ø –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 2 '11 at 15:53
    
Apologies to anonymous editor who helped revamp this post. It seems our editions collided. Looks like the history keeps only the last edition in case of collision. Please feel free to bust eventual remaining typos. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 3 '11 at 8:26

From the Wikipedia entry on h-dropping:

H-dropping is a linguistic term used to describe the omission of initial /h/ in words like house, heat, and hangover in many dialects of English, such as Cockney and Estuary English. The same phenomenon occurs in many other languages, such as Serbian, and Late Latin, the ancestor of the modern Romance languages. Interestingly, both French and Spanish acquired new initial [h] in mediæval times, but these were later lost in both languages in a "second round" of h-dropping.

So it appears that not only is H-dropping not unique to English, French underwent an H-adding phenomenon at around the same time they were influencing English, making it perhaps less likely that the dropped H in working-class British English was influenced by French speakers.

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