The loss of the sound [h] in English has traditionally been highly stigmatized, a sign of a vulgar or uneducated accent. Yet the history of it is complicated, and it seems fashionable speech has sometimes preferred to drop [h].

The geographical distribution of the feature is also strange. H is dropped in almost all the regional dialects of England, including those of London and the South-East, but is always pronounced in the standard accents of England as well as everywhere else in the English-speaking world. What this superficially suggests is that h-dropping originated somewhere in England after the colonization of the Americas and Australasia, and spread through England but did not reach Scotland, Ireland, or the colonies, nor percolate into educated speech. But this simple picture does not seem to be correct.

What it is and isn't

H-dropping is the complete absence of the sound [h] in the accent. The words hot, heart, happy, hammer begin with vowels. It is not merely variations in a few words, it is total absence across the vocabulary. So the following don't count as h-dropping, and in general the following variations are all regarded as normal, not stigmatized.
  • Silent letter H in honour, honest, hour, heir. No-one ever says an [h] here.
  • Silent letter H in American herb (the plant). This is just a regional difference.
  • Silent letter H in human, humour. This is individual variation: some people say it, others don't. (With perhaps some regional variation too.*)
  • Loss of H in unstressed grammatical particles he, him, his, her, has, had, have. Everyone can drop the [h] in normal casual speech when these follow another word. Pronouns and auxiliary verbs often have strong and weak forms, emphatic and unemphatic. (In fact in England these days these are often pronounced even when unemphatic.)
  • Silent H in several unstressed second elements in place names. The -ham and -hampton common in English place-names such as Birmingham, Cheltenham, Southampton often (though not always) have a silent H, even for speakers who normally pronounce H.
  • Pronunciation of WH as plain W. Most speakers in most countries pronounce whine the same as wine. The distinct WH pronunciation mainly survives in Scotland, the southern coast of the USA, and among older Americans.
  • Choice of a or an before the letter H. The use of an does not necessarily indicate the H was silent, especially in the past, because in Latin and Greek you always treated H as aspiration on a vowel for certain purposes, so educated people applied this to English. Also, people's usage still fluctuates when the H is away from the stress: thus many write a hIstory but an histOric.
  • The word hotel, a borrowing from French that in former years was usually used only for French places, so naturally it was written an hotel or an hôtel and pronounced an otEl. The sounding of the H in this word is more recent still.
  • The letter name aitch itself. The pronunciation haitch seems to be largely Irish and Roman Catholic.

It should also be pointed out that the term 'h-dropping' may be a misnomer. You can't drop something you haven't got. For most people who don't pronounce H's, they don't pronounce them because they aren't there. There isn't a sound [h] in hat for them any more than there's a [k] in knee, an [l] in walk, or an [r] in cart. As an infant you learn how the word sounds, and that's your language. Only a small part of this is subsequently affected by learning the spelling, and historically most people never learnt any spelling. So it's really h-absence. The term h-dropping is more strictly applicable if someone has a choice of varieties: they can speak an h-ful accent carefully or an h-less accent casually.

Early history

Classical Latin pronunciation included an [h] sound, but it was already lost around that time among the uneducated, as indicated by spelling errors and by poets such as Catullus mocking those who didn't know when to put it in. The Vulgar Latin from which modern Romance languages are descended had no [h]. One of its descendants was Middle French, the language that was massively imported into Middle English after the Norman Conquest.

However, already by the Middle French period scribes were using a silent spelling H, often inserting it where it had been previously lost. In part this was to conform to classical origins, and in part it might have been influenced by the fact that Old French had taken in a number of Frankish (Germanic) words containing an [h], such as halle, hardi, harpon. The legacy of this in Modern French is that many of these words do not engage in liaison: you write la halle, not l'halle. But today this is not a reliable indicator of Germanic origin.

So Middle English acquired two stocks of h-words. First there were the native ones, heart, hot, hear, hip, home which retained the Old English [h] sound. Second there were French borrowings such as host, habit, horizon, herb, honour. These ones from Latin probably all had silent H, even if it was written, though Frankish borrowings such as hardi (coming into English as hardy) had a pronounced [h], which we know because later French grammarians (of the 16th century) were complaining about people not pronouncing it.

Old English used to have [h] in other places, such as the ends of words, but that was lost earlier on: féoh became fee. The remaining h-sounds were largely at the beginnings of words, and in several compounds such as behind, ahead. It also had H before sonorants, hl, hr, hn, hw, as in the ancestors of the words loud, ring, nut, white: as you can see, only the WH survived into modern times.

Early Modern English

This is the part that's most in dispute amongst historical linguists. Middle English had two stocks of words, some with and some without pronounced [h], but all written with H. At what point and to what degree did these classes merge? Even as early as Chaucer there is evidence of silent H in words where we would expect it to be pronounced. Puns in Shakespeare on hair, heir, air and the like suggest h-less-ness was a normal feature. They weren't imitating or mocking rustics.

In fact the first condemnation of h-dropping as slovenly pronunciation seems to be in the eighteenth century.

It has been suggested that a Norman French accent was a sign of being upper class, and they dropped their H's, while the common Saxons said them. Well, possibly, but this seems awfully early. The nobility spoke English, not French, long before Shakespeare's time. In any case, it seems that h-dropping increased in the Early Modern period, and perhaps was fashionable, the cultivated way to speak, which is why it spread. As a court accent it was centred in London, and spread outwards into the provinces.

Sporadic irregularities like hour, honest, herb and perhaps hotel are signs of individual words that for one reason or another had not been swept up in the general tendency to insert an h-sound wherever there was an h-letter. Mostly the h-less words like habit, horizon have acquired an h-sound in Modern English.

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

I don't like to put time qualifiers even this vague onto anything here, but it does seem that h-dropping was accepted and normal among the 'good' speakers well into the eighteenth century, and the first condemnation of it occurred near the end. In this century the fashion changed. One legend or tradition has it that it was the accession of the German king George I and his court brought over from Hanover who caused the change: he spoke no English, and his language contained an [h]. Well, stories attributing changes to imitating individuals are dubious, but it's about the right timing.

In the meantime, America had been settled, and settlers were about to start out for Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, none of which are characterized by h-dropping. There are no significant regional accents of North America that are h-dropping, except the Caribbean. There is some h-dropping in Australia, an overall average 10% of speakers, but varying a lot when broken down by sex, class, and ethnicity.

So what this shows is that on the whole the regions of the British Isles the settlers came from were not h-dropping at that time, and that must have included much of rural England and working-class folk. So we get a vague picture of h-dropping as being a regionalism, generally South-Eastern, reinforced by court usage. This spread right across England. Today, only the far north keeps its [h] sound, of the regional dialects.

Yet by the beginning of the nineteenth century the reaction against it was in full swing. It was now fashionable to pronounce the H, and education kicked in. In this century the Received Pronunciation was instilled at the great public schools anyone (any male) with any pretension to education went to, and the prestige and authority of this RP accent persisted until near the end of the twentieth century. The silent H became a shibboleth, the single most distinctive barrier between good and bad ways of speaking.

[h] in England today

Okay, so all the common people drop their H's and all the posh classes enunciate them, right? Wrong. Although RP was only ever a small minority accent, today education of some kind is universal, and there is much less deference to a class accent. It's fashionable among some to be a Mockney, a mock Cockney. So there's an h-ful educated accent and an h-less London accent pulling in opposite directions. What do people in the majority South-East of England now say? Surprisingly, they pronounce their H.

The modern general accent of the South-East is often called Estuary English. It's not of course one monolithic accent, but it is in many ways intermediate between RP and Cockney. For the most part, Estuary uses 'standard' grammar (like RP: they say I didn't do anything, not I ain't done nothing) but a lot of Cockney (local London) phonetics. However, they pronounce [h]. It's not some upper-class feature preserved by higher education, it's still the 'standard' way of speaking. Young people with very strong Estuary accents still don't drop their H's.

I said above that regional accents of England, including the South-East, were h-dropping. This means the traditional or rural accents of counties such as Kent and Sussex close to London, as shown in a mid twentieth-century dialect atlas. The modern South-Eastern accent is not a direct descendant of these, but has mixed features, and has inherited h-pronunciation from middle-class varieties.

A 1977 survey of London schoolchildren showed that h-dropping was largely a male, working-class phenomenon: 81% of working-class boys compared to only 14% middle-class, and with girls 18% working-class, 6% middle-class. A study in far-north Darlington found h-less-ness encroaching from the south (Yorkshire), again varying with class and age. Similarly complications no doubt occur all over the country.

References

The mulch that is personal knowledge.
Lecture notes from Professor J.C. Wells's English accents course at UCL.
Some discussion of the historical spread of the feature, not necessarily agreeing with how I've presented it here, may be found at:
http://linguistlist.org/~ask-ling/archive-1997.10/msg01951.html
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000514.html
http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~cpercy/courses/6362Flis1.htm
http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/cockneyf-sil.htm
http://webs.uvigo.es/h04/jperez/icehl/phono.htm

* fnordian tells me silent H in the human, humour group is a Jewish/Eastern trait in the US.

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