h aspiré in French

Synopsis

In this article, we discuss the following:

  • That people write and say le hérisson rather than l'hérisson;
  • That the -e is pronounced in quatre hérissons but not in quatr(e) hommes;
  • That the -n isn't pronounced in en haut;
  • That the -s is pronounced in des huitres, but not in de(s) huits;
  • That people say dans l(e) car as two syllables, but dans le haut as three;
  • That people tend to say cathédrale de Halifax rather than ... d'Halifax;
  • When to say l'haricot and when to say le haricot.

Introduction

French presents some difficulties in terms of how words are written and pronounced when they are 'chained together'. You will be familiar at least with liaison, whereby, under cirtain circumstances, a normally silent consonant is 'hooked' on to the beginning of a following word beginning with a vowel. So normally, for example, final 't's aren't pronounced in il est petit, but are in c'est un petit homme.

Other issues surround the so-called 'mute e' or e muet1 that occurs, for example, in the words le, quatre and semaine. For example, it is common to omit the mute 'e' in pronouncing la semaine (la s'maine) and forces bosniaques, but not in forces serbes. A key point relevant for this discussion is that at the end of a word, a final mute 'e' is generally always elided ("deleted") before another word beginning with a vowel-- whether or not the spelling reflects this-- and that le is often pronounced l' after a vowel and before a following word beginning with a single consonant (so that quatre hommes is pronounced quatr'hommes; dans le car is often pronounced dans l' car).

A third phenomenon, which interacts with both of these other two, is the so-called aspirate h or h aspiré. As we'll see shortly, this is actually a very misleading term. Basically, it refers to cases where a word becomes 'detached' from the previous word where we'd otherwise expect it to be 'chained' via liaison or elision.

h aspiré is an occasional phenomenon that:
  • occurs at the beginning of a word that would otherwise start with a vowel;
  • blocks liaison: that is, prevents the consonant on the end of the previous word from being pronounced;
  • blocks elision: that is, forces any preceding mute e to be pronounced. It also forces the 'full' form of the definite article la (as well as le) to be used, rather than l'.

The circumstances that trigger h aspiré can be either:

  • specific French words, often called h aspiré words;
  • foreign words, which tend to trigger h aspiré;
  • syntactic circumstances such as "quoting" or ellipsis (see below).

Note that a so-called h aspiré word doesn't necessarily begin with an 'h' in the spelling! For example, the words in, ouate and ululer2 are often treated as h aspiré words.

Does h aspiré behave like a consonant?

It is commonly stated that words beginning with an h aspiré behave as though they begin with a consonant. This is almost true of the written language but not true of the spoken language.

The written language

In the written language, a word beginning with an h aspiré basically behaves as though it began with a consonant: it takes the uncontracted forms of articles, prepositions and subject pronouns (je hais; le hérisson; ce hérisson), including du rather than de l': du hérisson. Such words differ from normal words beginning with a consonant only in that there is sometimes variation in whether a particular word or circumstance triggers h aspiré (d'York and de York are both seen, although nowadays the latter is probably more common).

The spoken language

In the spoken language, h aspiré words (and circumstances triggering h aspiré) actually differ a little from words beginning with a consonant. So in fact, they behave neither like words beginning with consonants nor like words beginning with vowels.

They differ primarily because in the spoken language, h aspiré words block elision and force a previous mute h to be pronounced. Normal words (beginning with either consonant or vowel) don't have this 'forcing' behaviour. Thus, in dans le hall, the le is always 'fully' pronounced because hall is an h aspiré word. Whereas in dans le vestibule, the le can be pronounced l' (so "dans l' vestibule" is pronounced as four syllables), even though this isn't conventionally reflected in the written form.

Circumstances triggering h aspiré

As we noted briefly above, h aspiré is triggered either by certain specific words or by other more general circumstances.

Specific words that trigger h aspiré

The origin of the term h aspiré referred to the fact that the h was pronounced at the beginning of certain words.


Notes:
1. I'm glossing over a whole load of issues here. For a start, it's questionable whether there's really such thing as a single 'mute e', or whether there are in fact a number of distinct types of vowel with different features. (Consider, for example, that the 'mute e' is dropped in (la) semaine but never dropped in fenouil); in the word le it as a possible stressed variant in fais-le). There is also the issue of whether 'eliding' really means deleting completely, or whether 'eliding' means transferring some features (e.g. durational features) of the 'e' to the surrounding consonants in the smaine pronunciation of semaine. The pronunciation of mute e is also subject to regional variation.
2. Although this is a variant spelling of hululer.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.