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How are aspirated letters different from silent letters when pronouncing a word?

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How are they similar? Aspiration = a strong burst of air that accompanies the pronunciation of certain sounds (in English, voiceless stops in onset position in stressed syllables or word-initially). Silence = no sound at all. –  Kosmonaut Dec 8 '10 at 15:38
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@Kosmonaut, you should put that as an answer. –  AttackingHobo Dec 8 '10 at 17:12
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@AttackingHobo: I guess I will do so; I was just hoping that the question was intended to ask something different, and it was just a matter of using the wrong vocabulary. –  Kosmonaut Dec 9 '10 at 14:08
    
I wonder if the question is about the fact that initial 'h' in English is usually an aspiration (without a stop), but in certain words is silent. –  Colin Fine Dec 9 '10 at 15:40

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

How are they similar?

Aspiration = a strong burst of air that accompanies the pronunciation of certain sounds (in English, voiceless stops in onset position in stressed syllables or word-initially). This also occurs with the [h] consonant. In either case, a burst of air is produced.

Silence = no sound at all.

Now, just because a word is spelled with an "h", this does not mean that there is aspiration; whether or not there is aspiration is wholly dependent on the pronunciation. Words such as "hour" have no aspiration (in any dialect I am familiar with) — this means that there is nothing there, and the "h" is just representing some former historical pronunciation. On the other hand, "historical" has aspiration (the "h") in my dialect of English, but not in other dialects.

So, if you perceive silence where there is an "h" in spelling, it is not aspiration. Aspiration is audible/detectible in a spectrogram.

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I should add that "aspiration" is used in non-linguistic (but still didactic) contexts to denote deleted segments, referring to the "swallowing" notion of aspiration. Take, for example, the « h aspiré » in French (which was the topic of my graduate thesis in linguistics). –  msanford Dec 9 '10 at 15:40
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I think the confusion can stem from dialectal differences. For example, if you're told that the 'h' in honor is aspirated, but in your dialect it's completely silent, you'll come away with an incorrect idea of what aspirated means. –  Marthaª Dec 9 '10 at 16:40
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@msanford: I think "h aspiré" is so called because the "h" used to be aspirated, but now is gone completely, and is only detectable by the effects of having been formerly aspirated (liaison effects and whatnot). But, there is no swallowing involved in "aspiration" whatsoever. –  Kosmonaut Dec 9 '10 at 17:57
    
It wasn't aspirated in the linguistic puff-of-breath sense but was pronounced as [h] (liaison questions aside). –  msanford Dec 9 '10 at 18:23
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@Noldorin: When dealing with linguistics, it is reasonable for you to always assume that any physical description of airflow is restricted to the domain of the mouth, specifically when speaking. No language thus far has incorporated an air cannon into its phonology. –  Kosmonaut Dec 10 '10 at 3:41

I believe that whether it is treated as aspirated or silent frequently deals with the domain of snobbery. The snobbish prefer to treat most h's as silent, so that they have the opportunity to write "an hotel" or "an hospital," when clearly these are not the standard pronunciations. It falls into the same category as the misuse of the verb "graduate" (e.g. "he graduated college" rather than "he graduated from" or "was graduated from", etc.

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What is snobbish about "he graduated college"? Ngrams shows that the snobs don't use it. –  Peter Shor Apr 9 at 20:35

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