The consonant /h/ is a very weak consonant, almost the last trace of anything we can call a consonant at all, and it disappears very easily. Latin, Greek and Hawaiian are just three of the many languages which have lost the /h/ which they formerly had -- though Hawaiian has since acquired a new /h/, which developed from earlier /s/ and /f/.
According to the specialists, Latin /h/ was completely gone in popular Latin speech by the first century BC, though it may have been retained for a while by a few pedants. The Romance languages sometimes continue to write this long-lost /h/ in their orthographies, but this is purely for old
times' sake. An example is French and Spanish (but Italian
). In fact, Italian seldom bothers to do this, but some of the forms
of (from Latin ) are still written with an .
Long after this loss of Latin /h/, French acquired a new /h/ in words taken
from Frankish. This 'hache-aspir�e' then also disappeared from speech around the 16th century, though it retains a kind of ghostly existence in modern French, in that words containing it still behave as though they had an initial consonant. An example is 'the axe', and not
*. Spanish likewise acquired a new /h/, from the reduction of earlier /f/, as in 'do, make', from Latin , but this one too has now disappeared in almost all accents of Spanish. So far as I know, Italian has never acquired a new /h/, except perhaps in Tuscany, where the
*gorgia toscana* can turn /k/ into phonetic [h] -- not regarded as standard
pronunciation, I gather.
English has been losing its historical /h/ very slowly and gradually for many centuries. Word-initially before most consonants, it was completely lost long ago. Old English 'loud', 'ring' and 'nut' illustrate this very well. Between a vowel and a consonant, it lasted much longer, and it acquired the medieval spelling , but it finally disappeared here too, as in Old English 'light' and 'night'. Later still, it disappeared in the word 'it'.
In other positions, /h/ has largely survived, but not entirely. In all those words like 'hair', 'heart', 'harm' and 'hit', the /h/ has been slowly
disappearing in England for centuries. Today it is completely gone in the vernacular speech of almost all of England, where it survives only in three
small and widely separated areas. As a result, 'hair' is pronounced like 'air', and 'harm' like 'arm'. But this "h-dropping" is strongly stigmatized in England, and anyone who wants to be regarded as an educated speaker must learn where to put those precious aitches.
Such h-dropping is common today only in England and in Wales. There is no sign of it in Scotland, Ireland, North America or Australia -- though it was certainly present in Australia in the 19th century.
The cluster /hw-/ (spelled since the Middle Ages) is a different case. The /h/ remained in this cluster much longer than in other positions. But it finally disappeared in England in the 19th century, and today even the most careful Englishman pronounces 'whine' just like 'wine' and 'whales' just like 'Wales'. American English generally retained this /hw-/ until the 1950s, and those of us who grew up in the USA in the 1950s -- like me -- still generally have it. Since then, though, /hw-/ has been almost universally reduced to /w-/ in American English too, and today you will hear /hw-/ only from American speakers of a certain age. Today /hw-/ is still usual only in Scotland and in Ireland, and perhaps also in parts of Canada (I know little about Canadian English).
The linguist who has most carefully studied the history of h-dropping in England is Jim Milroy. Take a look at these:
James Milroy. 1983. 'On the sociolinguistic history of /h/-dropping in English'. In M. Davenport, E. Hansen and H.-F. Nielsen (eds), Current Topics in English Historical Linguistics, pp. 37-53, Odense: University of Odense Press.
James Milroy. 1992. Linguistic Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 137-145.
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