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Yesterday while chatting with a few friends, we ventured on to a subject that left me perplexed. My friend Giulio asked “How do you know when the H is silent in the beginning of a word”

These are the kind of questions us mother tongue speakers sometimes get from those who speak English as a second language. Giulio speaks English very well, and he always seems interested in improving while practicing.

As a mother tongue, it sometimes feels like “it just IS that way”, but I know that answer would not be satisfactory to someone who is speaking English as a second, third or fourth language. Being that I didn’t want to leave him with such a vague answer, I did a little digging…

So here’s what I found:

There are various reasons why the letter H can be silent when it is located in the beginning of a word. Sometimes it’s simply because of the word’s derivation, for example, the word hour comes from French where the English language took over both the pronunciation as well as the word. This isn’t the case for all words that start with H and derive from another language. Some might keep the word but not the pronunciation. Let’s take the word horrible, also from French. Here you can see that the H is pronounced. This is because the words pronunciation has changed throughout the centuries.

Silent letters are EVERYWHERE in English. It’s important to keep this as well as the history of the language in mind when learning to use it. This “borrowing” of words is a direct consequence of the history of the English language which has gone through several periods of especially strong cultural contact with other languages.

This is why English has an impressive number of words from other languages which highly contribute to all of those rule exceptions we often hear about, those words that seem familiar but mean something else and even those pesky silent letters.

So to answer Giulios question about the letter H, I am going to have stick with my mother tongue induced answer “it really just IS that way”.

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