Why is the letter H silent in Spanish?
This is one of the common questions we get from Spanish learners at WorldsAcross. Why does the letter H exist in Spanish if it isn’t pronounced? What is its purpose? Don’t you think that these are questions only made by Spanish students. It can even become a struggle when natives are kids who are learning how to write because in dictation, how can you tell the words that have it? Also, big figures from the Spanish Academic and Literary world like linguist Andrés Bello and writer Gabriel García Márquez even demanded the letter h to be removed from the alphabet and the words that contained it. Even the Real Academia Española has considered it expendable. However, to this day the H has fought well and hasn’t been abolished.
How is it that a letter that is present in more than 2,000 Spanish words can be silent?
It is found in the beginning in words like hola, hostia and hijo. In the middle of words like rehén, zanahoria and prohibir. However Just as the letter h is not pronounced in English words like honor, it is more than a coincidence, it is due to a usual historic and evolutionary explanation.
The fact of the matter is that the H was not always silent. Apparently, the Phoenicians, were the first ones to use it, pronounced it with a small explosion of air (like in English). Later, the Greeks adopted it, and then, it was incorporated into Latin, where little by little it softened its sound.
From Latin, as the majority of the language, the letter H made the leap to Spanish: Hominem > hombre; Habēre> haber, etc.
Additionally, Spanish also adopted numerous Latin words that began with the letter F, and that also in Castilian initially began with that letter. But over the years, and given that in some areas of Spain that F was also pronounced aspirated, that initial letter began to be replaced by H from the 14th Century on. For example, words like fumo: humo (smoke); farina: harina (flour); figo: higo; facer: hacer; furto: hurto; and many other words that had the H in the middle, as is the case with búho (owl).
Nonetheless from the 15th century, that trend changed and aspirated H began to be considered vulgarism, something typical of the lower classes and uneducated people, thus the sound of the H started to disappear gradually, however not completely, at least not everywhere (let’s remember it is pronounced when preceded by the letter C as in chao and muchacha). There are also many words of Arabic origin adopted by Spanish that have H, so if they’d change, it would cause that many of those words are not distiguishable from others.
Today some areas of Spain like Andalusia and the Canary Islands; and fewer some regions in Latin America some people continue to maintain the aspiration. The Dominicans pronounce the word huracán (hurricane) (which was originally spelled furacán in Spanish) as juracán. And in many countries some populations pronouns the aspiration of the h for the conjugation of the verbs halar (pull) and oler (smell) -huelo, hueles, etc.-
Additionally, some foreign words commonly used in Spanish (and taken, generally, from English), the H is also pronounced aspirated or with a sound close to the of J; as hobby, hamster or hawaiano.
Finally, let’s remember it plays an important role in writing; for example when detecting hiatus or to distinguishing homophones such as hola and ola; hojear and ojear; hecho and echo; rehusar and reusar; hecho and echo; halla and haya; and so on.
Do you know any other Spanish words in which the letter H can play an important role? Tell us in the comment section and remember you can join our Spanish learners community in WorldsAcross.
“Now pass it on to your friends, no supongas que ellos lo saben todo.”