Separated by a Common Language: Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK


When I started this blog, I wrote short little posts about things I noticed in British and American English. Few read them, and I usually managed to write three a week.  Since then, many more readers and commenters have appeared ([AmE] howdy! thank you!). As I imagine this larger audience responding to posts about X with “But what about Y?”, I try to fit the Ys in.  Sometimes the Ys are other expressions that I could discuss; sometimes they are beliefs about language that may or may not have basis in reality. As a result, my posts have got(ten) much longer and less frequent. (The latter is also due to parenthood and more responsibility at work. But [BrE] hey-ho.) I now look back on old posts and think: I can do better! So I’m going to have [more BrE than AmE] another go at the pronunciation of herb, which I first dedicated six sentences to in the second month of this blog.

I‘ve more sentences about it because I (BrE) go about/(AmE) go around discussing it in my talk: “How America Saved the English Language“. It’s one of a long list of differences for which the folklore is faultywith people like comedian David Mitchell (below) assuming and repeating that Americans don’t pronounce the ‘h’ in herb because we think we (or the word) are French. (The implication here is that the British are not under the illusion that they are French. Except of course that they eat auberginerather than eggplant and increasingly use -ise instead of -ize and spell centre with the letters in a very French order. And so on. And so forth.)

Mitchell went to Cambridge University, apparently (according to his Wikipedia bio) because he was rejected by Oxford. I can only assume this has caused him some sort of allergy to the Oxford English Dictionary and that this caused him not to research the claims he made here about herb as well as tidbit/titbit. Had he just looked it up, he would have found the following information.

From the Middle Ages, the word in English was generally spelled (or spelt, if you prefer) erbe, from the Old French erbe–but sometimes it was spelled with an h, after the Latin herba. From the late 15th century the h was regularly included in the spelling in English, but it continued not to be pronounced for nearly 400 years. This was not a problem for English, of course. We often don’t pronounce written h, for example in hour and honest and heir, and our ancestors didn’t pronounce it in humo(u)r, hospital, or hotel. Change and confusion about these things leads to the oddity of some people insisting that some (but not other) words that start with a pronounced h should nevertheless be preceded by an, not a, as if the h weren’t pronounced. (AmE) To each his/her own/(BrE) each to his/her own...

The h in herb finally started being pronounced in the 19th century in Britain. By this time, the US was independent and American English was following a separate path from its British cousin. Why did the English start pronouncing it then? Because that’s when h-dropping was becoming a real marker of social class in England. If you wanted to be seen as literate (or at least not Cockney) you had to make sure that people knew you lived in a house, not an ‘ouse. This 1855 cartoon from Punch (reproduced as a postcard for the British Library’s Evolving English exhibition) illustrates:

The result seems to have been more self-consciousness about pronouncing where it was in the spelling, and some h‘s got louder where they had not previously been heard. Why did this happen to herb and hotel but not honest or heir? I don’t know.

So, pronouncing herb without the h is the Queen’s English, if we’re talking Elizabeth I, rather than Elizabeth II.

And in case you were wondering:  Americans pronounce the h in the name Herb, which has a different history from the plant herb.


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