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Herbivore, etc.

Posted by R. Berg on January 10, 2002 at

In Reply to: Herbivore, etc. posted by The Fallen on January 10, 2002

: : : : : : : : Dropping H's from the front of words is generally considered a 'no-no'. It caused me years of frustration in the UK where I searched in vain for the location of places like 'atfield, and scowered the dictionary looking for the word 'ump - as in "She got the 'ump because we were late."

: : : : : : : : Now that I am back on the other side of the pond, I am bothered by the word 'herb'. In American English it is considered proper to drop the 'H' from the front of the word. It is also dropped from the word herbage. And yet - and this is where it gets weird - it is not properly dropped from the words, 'herbaceous', 'herbal' or 'herbalist'.

: : : : : : : : Does anyone have any idea why the 'h' is dropped or why the inconsistency? I'm also interested to know whether there are any other words in American English that follow the same principle? I can't think of any.

: : : : : : : It is not dropped from the pronunciation of the word herbicide, either. On the other hand, contrary to your observation, the beginning 'h' sound is often dropped from the word herbal, at least in my experience here in the midwestern U.S.

: : : : : The US being such a melee of cultural/linguistic influences, I wouldn't be surprised if this had something to do with the fact that in some european languages 'h's are silent. E.g. in spanish, h's are silent, and the english 'h' sound is denoted by a 'j'. e.g. 'hola' - pronounced ola, 'joder' pronounced Hod-air.
: : : : : Added to the ways h's and f's are almost interchangable at the start of words - 'hierro/fierro - iron , horno/forno - oven' - and we've got some serious confusion for non-natives!

: : : : I know a few people who are university-trained plant scientists, and a few people who consider themselves knowledgeable about the use of herbs for natural healing and the like. The latter group seems to mistrust the former. It has something to do with the perception that the former too readily embraces Western scientific practices and too easily dismisses Eastern ones. The latter group tends to drop the beginning 'h' sound from words like herbal. The former group seems less likely to do that. I've wondered if the latter group has made an effort to distinguish itself from the former in this way, or perhaps has even adopted the dropped 'h' as a means of attaining credibility. Here in the Midwest, dropped h's tend to signify that one is not a "local," and of course an expert, by definition, is someone who lives over 100 miles away.

: : : It does not surprise me that people in the Midwest consider experts as those living more than 100 miles away; experience may well have shaped this opinion.

: : 'Ere's another 'ypothesis: Those who study herbs in an academic setting see and hear related scientific words like "herbivore," "herbarium," and "herbaceous"--in which the "h" must be sounded--more often than those outside the university whose interest in herbs has to do with their uses in infusions and poultices. The former group therefore has more occasion to be troubled by the missing "h" sound.

: : The entry for "herb" in Webster's 2nd, 1934, includes this note: "The historical pronunciation is 'urb,' which still prevails in the best usage in the United States, although 'hurb' is also used. In England 'hurb' has increased in use since about 1800, and now apparently prevails in the best usage."

: : For "herbage," "herbal," and "herbman," Webster gives both pronunciations.

: : Question: Do U.K. speakers who drop initial h's drop them before all vowel sounds or only before a subset of vowel sounds?

: The "lazy" dropped h in the UK, so typical of the estuary English referred to above, an be and is dropped in front of any vowel sound. It's even acknowledged by the speaker in that he/she will use "an" instead of "a".

: So it's "I 'adda bet onnan 'orse at 'ome after an 'oliday". However, don't ever believe that this mode of diction is easy to copy or master... viz. Dick Van Dyck in Mar