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Listening to the recent film production of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart, I noticed that Duncan says:

Give me your hand. Conduct me to mine host.

Obviously, it's in the text (Act 1, Scene 6). I'm curious as to whether in Shakespeare's time (and dialect) this would have been pronounced with an aspirated 'h', or whether the 'h' was dropped. Presumably 'honour' did not have an aspirated 'h' in the second quotation below.

This seems to appear in other works:

As to take up mine honour's pawn

and

Mine honour is my life; both grow in one:
Take honour from me, and my life is done:
Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try;
In that I live and for that will I die.

(Richard II, Act I, Scene 1)

Looking further, in 'All's well that ends well' (Act IV, Scene 2) , we have this:

Here, take my ring:
My house, mine honour, yea, my life, be thine,
And I'll be bid by thee.

Where we have my house, rather than mine house, which suggests to me that mine host, would be mine 'ost to modern ears.

I've found various references stating that 'mine' is used when a word begins with h, however all the other examples I've seen are of silent hs and so are effectively words starting with vowels, whereas host is not.

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I'm not even that keen on "pronunciation" questions regarding "proper English as she is spoke" today. So sorry, nicodemus13, Elizabethan pronunciation is off-topic for me. Btw - I'm more than a bit Cockney, but "Mine host" would rarely be "Mine 'ost", no matter how drunk I was, nor how slurred my speech. –  FumbleFingers Jun 28 '12 at 21:21
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"Questions on the following topics are welcomed here: ... Pronunciation (phonetics and phonology, dialectology)" I think the quality of the question puts this the right side of the line -- just. Hopefully we have someone who knows the answer! –  Andrew Leach Jun 28 '12 at 21:36
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@Carlo_R. It would only take someone to come up with a contemporaneous poem about beer where "mine host" (publican) was rhymed with "thine oast" (hop-drying building) to be fairly conclusive. But I don't know. I don't think even the English teachers we had at school were 400 years old. –  Andrew Leach Jun 28 '12 at 22:08
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@AndrewLeach wrong, do it again. ;) –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Jun 28 '12 at 22:11
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@AndrewLeach, & FumbleFingers: As a note, the purpose of my question was not any notion of 'correctness', but more how much one can establish pronunciation based on the usage of words in a time when there was no audio-recording. I presumed that was a valid field of academic study. :) –  nicodemus13 Jun 28 '12 at 22:36

2 Answers 2

One can search for all occurrences of "mine h..." in Shakespeare. Ignoring suffixes (so "hostess" gets included with "host"), there are only nine nouns beginning with 'h' that follow the pronoun "mine". One can also account how many times these words occur with "my". The results are as follows:

mine hair 1
my hair 9
mine heart 1
my heart 354
mine heir 3
my heir 3
mine honest 15
my honest 10
mine honour 81
my honour 32
mine host 27
my host 3
mine hour 1
my hour 2

The two words which we are fairly sure were pronounced with an aspirated 'h' ("hair" and "heart") each only have a single occurrence of "mine", while most of the others have more occurrences of "mine" than of "my". "Host" follows this pattern. Further, "host" comes from French, as do "honest", "honour", "hour", and "heir". There are also three occurrences of "an host(ess)", and none of "a host(ess)". I think this is fairly good circumstantial evidence that Shakespeare did not pronounce the 'h' in "host".

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Interesting data! I also find myself wondering if any of these would be affected (and if yes, how) if we looked at the original spellings instead of the normalized ones. Early Modern English still had some relationship between pronunciation and spelling, after all. –  Marthaª Jun 29 '12 at 0:18
    
I disagree with this question being asked in the first place, but I'm impressed with the clarity of presentation - "this is fairly good circumstantial evidence". :) –  FumbleFingers Jun 29 '12 at 0:37
    
@Peter Shor: Thanks, good analysis. Was the source text the first folio? –  nicodemus13 Jun 29 '12 at 9:56
    
The source text was whatever is on this website, which I permits queries of the form "mine h" which match words starting with h. The first folio has enough spelling variations that searching it would be quite a bit more work. –  Peter Shor Jun 29 '12 at 11:32

Shakespeare's Pronunciation: Shakespeare phonology with a rime-index to the poems as a pronouncing vocabulary is a rather old book (from 1906) available from google books that talks about just these kinds of issues. It claims that honour makes the (short) list of words pronounced without an aspirated 'h' Shakespeare's time. By omission, it is implied that host would have been pronounced with the initial aspiration, as would have most words beginning with 'h'. Here is the relevant section:

Shakespeare's Pronunciation

Of course, there are plenty of reasons that this source may not be as accurate as we'd hope. A good summary of reasons is given here, but it basically boils down to:

  1. It was a long time ago, and voice recording was not available back then.
  2. People tend to lean on their own notions and prejudices, even when researching phonology.

There are plenty of linguistic tools available to help figure out how things might have been pronounced (e.g. looking at spelling variations, mapping founder's effects, etc.), but there will always likely be a certain amount of guesswork involved.

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