Dropping letters

George Bernard Shaw once said:

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him”

Shaw, an Irish man, was to some extent poking fun at the English, but there certainly is some truth in his statement. English speakers have been complaining about the way other people speak English for very long. The same is probably true of other languages.

One of the things people complain about is the dropping of certain letters, such as the initial h, or of the g in ing endings. This is getting things the wrong way round and assuming that we should speak as we write. English spelling certainly isn’t the most reliable guide to English pronunciation. Initial h’s aren’t being dropped – they just doesn’t exist in some dialects.

Words borrowed from French, such as hour, heir and honest are usually pronounced without the initial h most varieties of English. Moreover, in American English herb also lacks the initial h sound, though the h is pronounced in some varieties of British English.

This post was inspired by the book I’m reading at the moment: ‘A Plum in Your Mouth’ – Why the way we talk speaks volumes about us, by Andrew Taylor.

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This entry was posted in English, Language, Pronunciation.

26 Responses to Dropping letters

  1. Josh says:

    I hate when people pronounce the “h” in herb… it just sounds so uneducated to me. I didn’t know there were dialects of english where this letter was actually pronounced in this word. I also hate it when people spell “you’re” as “your”. I think only native English speakers do this- I’ve never seen students of the language make this mistake.

    I’ve never had an issue with droppin’ the final “g” (heh heh). I generally don’t write like this, but where I’m from 90% of the population talks like this (Charlotte, NC). Sometimes when I’m trying to be facetious, I’ll drop g’s… but then, in that mode I’ll even write about “what I ain’t gon’ be doin’”, …etc.

  2. Rmss says:

    Ah Shaw, a great man. I’ve to admit that I’ve been an enthuastic writer of the alphabet named after him. He was totally right about English, and I find it quite annoying when people drop a lot of letters.

  3. englishman says:

    “I hate when people pronounce the “h” in herb… it just sounds so uneducated to me.”

    This may be true in Hicksberg NC, but in England (where correct English is spoken) educated people pronounce the ‘h’, and always have done.

    From the mighty intellectual centre (that would be center to you) that is North Carolina (the rump of a state, named after (or ‘for’ as you would say) one of our queens) you feel sufficiently emboldened to expatiate on the subject of English pronunciation. What gives you this confidence? Money?

    To me you sound as ‘uneducated’ as you actually are. Even your president, who was ‘educated’ at one of your best ‘universities’, sounds like a pig-farmer to the rest of the world.

  4. Dominic says:

    “in England… educated people pronounce the ‘h’ [in herb], and always have…”

    This is not true. “Herb” is a borrowing from French where the ‘h’ was not pronounced. The pronunciation with an ‘h’ in English is what’s called a spelling pronunciation.

    Perhaps “englishman” should have educated himself on the history of the word “herb” before posting?

  5. Joe DeRose says:

    Jeez, englishman, maybe you should try decaffeinated next time.

    Here in the U.S., pronouncing the initial h does sound uneducated. We do, in fact, have uneducated people here (sometimes we even elect them), and we know what they sound like. But if you think you can make assumptions about one’s educational status based on (1) state of residence, (2) city of residence, or (3) preference for American pronunciation, then you’re showing the limits of your own learning.

    Here are the facts: Unlike French, there is no central authority for the English language. Both your version(s) and our version of the language are substantially different from the English spoken when we … um … went our separate ways. And there are smart people in America – very few of whom pronounce the initial h in herb.

    And I have to offer a passing observation: I’ve traveled halfway around the world in both directions, in areas with very complicated relationships with my country (most recently to the Middle East). Most of the people I’ve met share my view that current American foreign policy is a disaster. But the only nation I’ve ever been in where people express an open contempt for the American people is the United Kingdom. What’s up with that?

    – Joe / Atlanta / USA

  6. dreaminjosh says:

    Hey, I wasn’t saying that pronouncing the “h” was altogether uneducated- here in the USA it is, though.

    This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen such venom on these boards.

    I’m a little disappointed.

  7. TJ says:

    aaa … whats up doc?

    from my side as being non-English speaker originally… I wonder what difference does it make if we say H or not .. and how that reflects our education anyhow?

    Here for example, we have people that speak the dialect of Bedouins in the desert and still they have PhDs and do research and bla bla bla and some of them speak either the british accent or the american one (depending on the origin of their PhD studies or whatever comes after highschool) ….. is the mind really reflected by the sounds we make by our tongue?

    Personally, I don’t think so, cos’ I’ve seen it here apparently!

  8. David says:

    In my primary school we were told to pronounce the letter ‘h’ (in an alphabet) ‘ache’, not ‘hache’ and I found this very annoying as, me being a selfish child wanted to pronounce ‘h’, ‘hache’…hehehe!

  9. The “englishman” seems to have forgotten – or never to have learned – some important facts, not only about the English language, but about English history as well.
    The telling phrase was “the rump of a state, named after (or ‘for’ as you would say) one of our queens”. By “rump” I imagine he alludes to the fact that there are two Carolinas, and therefore each of them is but half a state. Too bad for the glorious county of Sex, now, alas, divided into the rump-counties of Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Middlesex, if I’m not too mistaken (and I usually am).
    _And_ Carolina is not named for any Queen Carol(in[a/e]), but for King Charles – Carolus, you know, my dear englishman.

  10. And yes, I’m _for_ moderation, so that certain questionable comments will not make their way into this immensely valuable forum!

  11. James says:

    ha! I´d just not feed the trolls :)

    But he is right that the “proper” way (RP, which is my native accent, so that´s why it´s proper) of saying “herb” in UK english is with the H. I used to live inthe US and to me the USA “erb” sounds very pretentious, though of course in that variety of english it is standard.

    Now moving onto spanish… the main things that are dropped in Spanish are “s”s and consonants near the end of the word between vowels (I can´t summon up the right words at the moment)

    So in standard peninsular and LA highland spanish (he says stealing the example from Wikipedia)

    todos los cisnes son blancos

    is said with all the final S´s

    in Andalucia and most of Latin America is comes out as

    [todɔh lɔh sihnɛh sɔn blankɔh], or [todɔ lɔ sinɛ sɔn blankɔ].

    I heard a sermon the other week which was talking about las asnas de someone, but it came out as “la ana” de whoever.

    I lived in Seville and it´s really strong there, as it is in Chile.

    the other thing that gets eaten is (eg) the D in cansado

    estoy cansado comes out as

    “toy cansao”

    Even the ubiquitous huevón (same as cabrón in Central American Spanish) turns into “weon”

    what else to they eat:

    son diez para las tres turns into

    “son die pa la tre”

    they do this in Cuba too as far as I can tell.

    Just heard on the song I am listening to “tu donde estas”

    “tu donde (h)ta” (singer from Andalusia)

    I have to say I don´t like it at all, and speak basically highland spanish with a mild central american lilt (apparently, according to some people. It´ll havebeen living in Florida and listening to Colombian radio all the time)

    I am such an accent nerd… I love this stuff ;)

    J

  12. James says:

    another weird thing

    todas las cosas in chile turns into

    toda la cosas – the first s´s are dropped but the final one is kept. Though it does depend slightly on class and education – you can easily hear toda la cosa but you tend to hear it from the cleaner and not your uni profesors (tend to…)

  13. Polly says:

    @James: That explains so much about what I hear in Spanish and why I sometimes have a hard time recognizing words I “know.”
    Sometimes, when I really try to sound as close to native as I can, I will gloss over some consonants.

  14. James says:

    you know that was what i tried to do for the first 6 months here: I tried to change my mongral Peninsular accent to copy the chileans, but the result, while they quite liked it, was a disaster. So I have been having voice lessons (the funny high pitched way that they speak here was really hurting my throat, and after teaching for 2 hours it left me in pain). I now have had the full Eliza Doolittle treatment and speak English and Spanish at the same pitch, and when i am having a good day “without accent” . But when I get flustered, am tired or have done something illegal my accent suddenly gets more English. Actually when i do something wrong my Spanish suddenly dissapears altogether ;)

  15. James says:

    oh and let´s try and get the english discussion back on track.

    now I used to know something about this, and i think it´s tied to loanwords: I think that the longer a word has been in the language the more anglicised (or hispanised or whatever) it becomes in it´s pronunciation and spelling. Here in chile we have pudín (pudding) queques (cakes), but “sorry” and “please” just as the come, as well as “feedback” and so on.

    Now with the initial H in english, it used not to be pronounced, which is why we have “an historian”, “an hour” and “an hedgehog”, because A + V is hard to say. in fact I know speakers of RP who say “an istorian” (the one I am thinking of is professor of semitic languages at Durham University UK, so not uneducated).

    Also there is a diffenrence between USA h dropping and UK H dropping: I never heard “ospital” in the USA, but always “erbs”. In the UK if you go to the ospìtal you ave erbs and if you go to hospital you have herbs.

    So there are two different dynamics at work.

  16. James says:

    sorry another post, just to correct

    “in it´s pronunciation”

    which obviously should be “its pronunciation”. I just don´t write or read much english anymore and my spelling has gone very strange over the last 6 months especially.

  17. Polly says:

    …while they quite liked it, was a disaster.

    If they liked it, why was it a disaster?

    What’s “RP”?

  18. Josh says:

    Received Pronunciation.

  19. Polly says:

    Thanks Josh!
    I should’ve guessed.

  20. James says:

    …while they quite liked it, was a disaster.

    If they liked it, why was it a disaster?

    (1) As I said, Chileans tend to speak in a rather high tone of voice, which is not how I speak English, French or German and I was imitating and it was giving me problems: my job is lecturing and 2 hours of speaking would leave me in pain. It was also hard to speak loud. A disaster

    (2) I was coping some of the more idiosyncratic elements of their speach (dropping consonants and the use of chilean slang) which made me a lot harder for my non-chilean students to understand. Like the Turkish immigrant who lards his conversation with “mate” and “innit”…

    Much better all round to go for standard pronunciation, especially as people here don´t speak that way and so will put up with generalisations of accent in a way that they wouldn´t if I was copying their accent. I also don´t intend only to teach here. Old accent = disaster, new one = much better. and people have actually commented on how much better my accent is now

  21. Polly says:

    Ah, I see.
    It just seemed odd since the goal is always to “talk like a native.” I didn’t think it could be bad thing. But, in your position, there are other considerations – laryngeal stamina and non-Chilean students.

  22. Laura B. says:

    Back to the herb discussion.

    Here in Canada I’ve heard it pronounced both as ‘herb’ and ‘erb’. But, to tell the truth, I sincerly preffer the former over the later.
    I find that when the ‘h’ gets dropped the ‘erb’ is almost pronounced as two sylables (almost.)

    Laura

  23. Polly says:

    That’s funny. I really do prefer “erb” and it feels like an unnecessary effort to pronounce the “h.” Yet, I don’t have a problem with “history” or “humerus.”

    What about “homage” and “honor”? I don’t pronounce the “h” in those either. Does anyone?

  24. James says:

    I sometimes drop the H with the indefininate article (which is strongly marked RP, sorry guys, but it´s just how I speak)

    And as to the sound like a native thing, I am still aiming to sound native, just not like a native chilean…. A colombian would be good, or Mexican, Guatamalan etc! It´s like a chilean trying to imitate SE USA english and end up speaking half Alabama half spanish: it would be almost incomprehensible to non Bamans… “les go an see Eshreck III, y´all”

    ;)

  25. Laura B. says:

    @Polly

    Its strange, I would pronouce the word homage with an ‘h’ but honor withought.

    I guess I prounounce things how they sound best to me.

  26. George says:

    HERB

    I’ve been corrected when saying HERB with the H and told it is incorrect and should be pronouced erb. I believe it is very rude to correct a person’s English and if you don’t agree with the way a person speaks, keep SILENT. English people, in general say herb with the H. American people, in general, say herb without the H. I’ve listened to both English and American people destroy English but I’m not rude and therefore, ignore it.

    So the next time you hear a person say Herb with the H or without, SO WHAT? Let it go. There are more important things in life to be concerned about than that.

    Get over it.