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    Digging Deep Into Letters

    Monday, May 18, 2015

    h-spo How do you develop a closer relationship with language? It’s something I’m coming to understand as I read Roy Peter Clark’s excellent and accessible book, The Glamour of Grammar. In it, Clark notes, “For those living inside the language, each sound, each letter offers potential delight and meaning.”

    To drive home his point, Clark encourages readers to adopt a favorite letter; research and mind map words that begin with it; and write a short profile about it.

    My word profile is published below. If you’re feeling inspired, give the activity a try and let us know how your profile turns out.

    The Hubbub About H

    I didn’t expect the letter h to be so heated.

    In a mind map of h-words, a good-versus-evil theme emerges. There’s harmony and havoc; hero and heathen; help and hinder. Then there’s the ultimate clash of heaven and hell.

    Honestly, h has had a hectic history. At one point, the Romantic languages nearly heaved the letter out of existence. In the 13th Century, Old French—the very language where h’s “aitch” pronunciation derived from—omitted the letter from its language. Late Latin followed suit, silencing h. The letter reemerged in Middle English, starting with word spellings and eventually vocalizations. However, h is still silent in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

    H’s period of turmoil is evident in Modern English words with Latin roots such as honor and honest (silent h); humble (h is now vocalized); and able (derived from the Latin habile).  

    But there’s more. H is at the center of a pronunciation battle brewing in Great Britain. A growing number of Brits who pronounce h as “haitch” rather than “aitch” are catching flack from wordsmiths who deem the former as improper and inelegant. In fact, the BBC has been flooded by complaints about hosts using the “lower standard” of pronunciation. Oh the horror!

    All this hubbub for a letter that started as an Egyptian hieroglyphic for fence. No disrespect to the pharaohs, but I think H looks more like a rung on a ladder.

    But maybe I’m just being hostile.

    Now it’s your turn. Pick a letter, any letter. Do a little research. Then write a profile. I think you’ll feel a new kinship with a small but not so insignificant piece of our language. 

    —Tim Kemper