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The subject more or less says it all. I would like to know how rh (as in rhythm) was originally pronounced. It is listed as being something which was originally present in Latin, but, in Latin, "h" is used to harden a vowel. I can't think of a soft pronunciation for "r" in Latin or any potential intermediate steps.

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Could you please give a Latin word having 'rh'? –  Thursagen May 31 '11 at 5:41
    
One of the few langauges that does distinguish a voiced from a voiceless /r/ is Welsh, where "rh" is voiceless, and "r" is voiced. It is hard for English speakers to grasp the distinction unless they have heard it, but imagine saying "h" at the same time as saying "r" will give you something like it. –  Colin Fine May 31 '11 at 12:12
    
@ThirdIdiot: Nearly all Latin words that have an h after t, c, p, or r are Greek borrowings (or, rarely, remnants from regional or archaic variants), just as the diphthongs oe, eu, and ou (eu and ou exist in Latin, but as diphthongs only in Greek words; Greek ou is usually transliterated u in Latin but not always). Z and y always come from Greek, or, rarely, from some other language. Note that, in the Middle Ages, sometimes a classical i in a Latin word was spelled y instead, for no particular reason (i and y were usually interchangeable in English as well). –  Cerberus May 31 '11 at 13:06
    
@Third I looked up rhythm's origin. Rhymmus or something like that. –  cwallenpoole May 31 '11 at 14:23
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In English, as far as I know, "rh" was never pronounced any differently from plain "r". This spelling, as @third-idiot wrote, is basically how the Ancient Greek "ῥ" was transliterated in Latin characters.

In Old Greek using polytonic orthography, an initial "ρ" was always written with a rough breathing, indicating the Greek /r/ (whatever its actual phonetic value) was probably aspirated or voiceless at the start of a word. Greek lost its aspirates quite early on though, and by the 4th century AD this rough breathing didn't mark anything anymore. Still, it kept on being written until the 1982 reform, which abolished the polytonic orthography along with the Puristic language and introduced the monotonic system and the Demotic language as official Modern Greek language (though it is still used by, for instance, the Greek Orthodox Church, which refused to acknowledge the reform).

People who made learned borrowings from Old Greek, like "hymn", "hypnosis" or "helium", transliterated the rough breathing on vowels as "h", and did that also for words where the rough breathing was on "ῥ", like "rhythm" or "rhapsody", even though they probably didn't pronounce that initial "r" as voiceless or aspirated themselves. It was just an orthographic convention.

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+1 Excellent. Good to know the Church still uses Katharevousa. It may be worth noting that spelling conventions for Latin borrowings from Greek were probably established before (Attic) Greek lost its aspiration and other features. Nearly all our Greek words in English are supposed to come from Ancient Greek and follow these conventions. –  Cerberus May 31 '11 at 12:34
    
Actually, I'm not sure about that, @Cerberus. I don't have my Latin dictionary at hand, but IIRC in Latin both the spellings rhythmus and rythmus can be found, and the latter was originally more common. In French, the word is spelled rythme, and while it's been spelled rhythme in the past this is considered hypercorrection. –  Tsela Jun 1 '11 at 12:42
    
That said, the history of Greek borrowings in European languages is a muddy one, depending on whether they were borrowed directly, via Classical Latin, Medieval Latin or Renaissance Latin, or via Church Latin. And each language has its own rules about the orthography of such words. –  Tsela Jun 1 '11 at 12:53
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The Greek rho, transliterated into Latin as rh and retained in English words like rhythm and rhetorical would have been pronounced more like a modern Italian or Greek r than how we pronounce it in English, although aspirated at the start of words.

More info at wikipedia, although the best resource for the pronunciation of Ancient Greek is W. Sidney Allen's Vox Graeca.

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An instance of soft pronunciation of 'r' in Latin could be "purgatio".

"Rh" as in "rhetoricus" was pronounced pretty much the way it is now.

"Rh" actually came from the Greek letter "rho" or "ρ", and is pronounced the way it is today. Words having this 'rh" also include "rhombus".

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