Friday, November 17, 2006

Why don't Americans pronounce the "h" in "herb"?

Who's asking: Dan Freedman, Cheshire, UK

First, before any rumors start when people click through to that link: I have no current plans to join any radical Afro-jazz musical groups. (I could probably make my hair form dreadlocks if I tried, though.)

I am sorry to have to tell you, Dan, that the American pronunciation of this word ("urb") is the correct one. English borrowed this word from the French, who did not pronounce the "h," in a manner similar to the words honor, hour, and heir. The English restored the voiced "h" at some point, when they added the voiced "h" back to other French-derived words, such as humble and human. (Donald Trump didn't get the memo about this, but Americans pronounce those h's, too.)

So we actually pronounce "herb" in a more traditional and accurate way, except when we use it as a prefix in the words herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore. Our mother tongue is a capricious mistress, not to say a vicious bitch.

What I Read These Weeks (special double edition):

Peter Spiegelman, Red Cat. Peter Spiegelman's private investigator, John March, is the black-sheep son of a prominent New York investment banking family. In this third outing, March's own brother, David, comes to him in desperation for help in identifying a blackmailer. The only identifying information David can give his brother about the woman he had an affair with is that she had a red cat tattoo. When a corpse with that tattoo is pulled out of the East River, John has to figure out just how much trouble his brother is in. Spiegelman is among the best writers in crime fiction today; I'd go so far as to say he's this generation's heir to Ross Macdonald, offering sharp and compassionate observations about the way families keep their secrets. This book comes out next February.

Megan Abbott, The Song is You. Abbott's second novel is based on the 1949 disappearance of actress Jean Spangler, whose purse was found in Griffith Park days after she was last seen. As in her first book, Die a Little, Abbott gives us an almost hallucinatory picture of 1950s Los Angeles, following her main character, a burnt-out Hollywood press agent, as he digs for the truth about what happened to Jean. And as in any classic noir novel, no one gets out of this one unscathed. Well done.

Anne Tyler, The Amateur Marriage. Michael and Pauline fall in love with each other the week after Pearl Harbor, and the fever of wartime sweeps them into marriage before they can realize that they are wholly unsuited to each other. Tyler follows them through the next six decades, through birth and death and loss and divorce, illuminating the nature of marriage, and of love that persists even when you can't stand each other. Anne Tyler has always been one of my favorite novelists, but this book stands above almost everything she's written.

Chris Grabenstein, Mad Mouse. Grabenstein's first novel, Tilt-a-Whirl, won the Anthony for Best First Novel, and while I was rooting for my own client (Theresa Schwegel) to win, and also really, really loved Megan Abbott's first book, I was delighted to see Tilt-a-Whirl get some formal recognition. Grabenstein's heroes, the young cop-in-training Danny Boyle and his partner, the formidable John Ceepak, return in this sequel, which is just as good as the first book. As the town of Sea Haven, NJ prepares for a blowout Labor Day weekend, someone starts taking shots with a paintball rifle at Danny and his friends -- but then the shots are real.


Rob Anderson said...

My, my...intelligent, smart, funny AND sexy. You're my Blogger of the Year.

AnswerGirl said...

Thanks, but I'm sure you have me confused with someone else...

AzumiRM said...

sorry, answer girl, but you are sorely mistaken. Most of America's pronunciation derives from the lack of education in both written and spoken language that the first few generations of inhabitants had. The first inhabitants of a somewhat permanent settlement were African in decent and placed in the carribean islands. English was not their first language and so some transcrections occurred when it comes down to spoken vs. Written language. Being of a French colony at the time, they pronounced the English herb as urb. As this is how they heard it.
The tradition of transcripting what you hear in to text, soon passed to the uneducated population populating the future USA. Thus the miss spellings and miss pronunciations frequently found throughout the USA's version of english.
To list just a couple of examples :
Obtobre (correct French and english)
October (interpreted from spoken word by immigrants)

Novembre - November

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

Forgive me for not accepting the authority of someone who presumes to correct a stranger while being unable to spell "misspelling," "mispronunciation," or "Octobre" correctly. We also capitalize "English," and the first word of sentences. Finally, the word is "descent," not "decent," which means something different altogether.

Before you remove the speck in your neighbor's eye, look after the plank in your own.

Renegade said...

'English borrowed this word from the French, who did not pronounce the "h," in a manner similar to the words honor, hour, and heir. The English restored the voiced "h" at some point.' Ah another American looking things up on Google and thinking that they know now. How quaint. In fact the word 'herb' comes from both the French - erbe and the Latin - Herba (yep with an H in it). The mispronunciation of herb without an H is exactly that and in Britain was seen as an indication of poor breeding and a lack of education, especially from the 19th Century onwards. Sadly Americans didn't realize that and still continue to mispronounce the word to this day.

Anonymous said...

"The mispronunciation of herb without an H is exactly that and in Britain was seen as an indication of poor breeding and a lack of education, especially from the 19th Century onwards. Sadly Americans didn't realize that and still continue to mispronounce the word to this day"

So booyah !

I'm afraid to say its just another affectation by certain Americans who should know better. If you think "erb" is strange you should ask them to say Risotto, Chorizo, Ricotta, Basil etc etc etc

Dave Jones said...

I realize this is an old post, but I wanted to thank you, Answer Girl, for publishing this one. I was looking into the etymology of another English word that used a silent H when I was barraged with comments from smarmy Brits insisting that Americans pronounce herb without the H because A.) they are stupid, B.) they must think they're French, C.) they're being pretentious, D.) they're trying to annoy British people, and so on and do forth. I first saw this attitude when I spent time in London in the 1980s, but it appears to have gotten (yes, "gotten" is indeed a word and it originated in England) even worse over the years. Many British people seem to be compelled to demonstrate their ignorance and arrogance simultaneously when it comes to the English language. The common thinking is: if we're talking about an English word, I know all the answers because I am English. Never mind that they are clueless about the actual history of their own language. They just assume they must be correct in every instance and, of course, that Americans are always wrong. You of course were correct about the history of the word "herb". Those who insist that it has always been pronounced with the H sound are clearly unaware that when the word was borrowed into English around 1200, it was spelled "erbe" After some time it was changed to the spelling "erb" and stayed that way for some time before the H was finally added during the renaissance. There was a craze at that time for adding letters which were thought to reflect the Latin roots of various words. It's still easy to find instances of English writers using the silent H pronunciation of herb well into the 20th century. Perhaps if these self-proclaimed experts in your comment section could wrap their minds around this fact, they would stop assuming the H sound was always there. But, knowing Brits, they would probably still stamp their feet and insist they were right and that "erbe" contained an invisible H, or some such nonsense. The thing that surprised me is just how recent;y that H pronunciation began. It wasn't until the late Victorian period that Brits started to pronounce the H. Two of your commenters inadvertently touched on the reason for the change, while making completely spurious claims about the "correct" pronunciation of the word. It was indeed class anxiety that caused certain British subjects to start using the H which had been silent for so many centuries. The industrial age allowed for some upward mobility of the lower classes, for the very first time, and many poor people did manage to raise themselves up in business. but these people knew that dropping aitches was seen as a sign of poor education or low birth, particularly during the late 19th century, so many people starting pronouncing every H they saw. It was during this period that herb picked up the H pronunciation in England, as did the word "hotel" and a few others. Honor, hour and heir kept their original pronunciations, though.

If it weren't so pathetically desperate, it would be funny that some Brits still feel the need to fabricate entire "historical scenarios" about why the American pronunciation is "wrong" instead of simply acknowledging the documented facts about this word, as expressed by this blogger. Since they refuse to take the word of every decent English linguist (Lynne Murphy, Katherine Barber, Arnold Zwicky, et al), on this subject, they could always look at an Oxford dictionary and find this statement: "although herb has been spelled with a H, pronunciation without it was usual in British English until the late 19th century and is still standard in the U.S.." Accepting the truth does nothing to disparage the British people or their current pronunciation of the word. They'd lose nothing by admitting the truth, yet they still stubbornly (and stupidly) try to fabricate reasons to disparage Americans.

Dave Jones said...

"If you think "erb" is strange you should ask them to say Risotto, Chorizo, Ricotta, Basil etc etc etc"

With the exception of "basil," Americans tend to pronounce these words much more closely to the way they are pronounced in their countries of origin. I don't know if this is true for most Brits or just some of them, but I have actually been "corrected" by Englishmen for pronouncing chorizo as chor-ee-so and informed that it should be said as either chor-eeeth-o or hor-eeth-o. They were apparently unaware that the entire Spanish speaking world does not follow the rules of Castilian Spanish, or that most Spanish speakers in fact pronounce the letter Z and if it were an S. It's generally not a good idea for Brits to think they know more about Spanish words than Americans do. Very soon there will be more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than English speakers. 93% of high schools in the U.S. offer Spanish classes and most everyone knows the rules for Spanish pronunciation already.

And btw, English people, it's tah-ko, not tack-o, and it's pah-sta not pass-ta.