I saw a post recently that discussed the many uses of the letter C. The gist of the post was that C is sometimes used with a K sound and sometimes with an S sound. I agree that C is pretty busy with different jobs but this made me think of all of the jobs that H does.

Note: this article borrows heavily from David Sacks’ Letter Perfect.

By itself, H doesn’t do much. It’s not much more than an exhalation. A number of English accents tend to drop leading H sounds.

A lot of other uses of H are because of the Romans. The Roman alphabet didn’t come directly from the Greeks. The Romans got their alphabet from the Etruscans who got theirs from the Greeks. The Etruscans did a fair bit of their own tweaking before the Romans got it.

The Latin alphabet used by the Romans had dropped a lot of sounds that the Greeks had used but the Romans didn’t. The Romans didn’t miss these sounds until they started borrowing Greek words and needed those sounds again. Rather than reintroduce the Greek symbols, the Romans would use a letter that they already had and then stick an H after it to say “use the Greek sound.”

The theta sound is a good example. Greeks used the theta sound that’s found in this and theatre but the Romans didn’t. The Greek symbol for theta was θ. When the Romans borrowed the Greek word theater, they started with a T (T and θ are close linguistically) and added an H to distinguish it from the regular T sound.

The Greeks also had a few more K sounds than the Romans. The Romans used the same trick with adding an H after C for words like chrome and Chronos. The English language changed since then so that color and chrome both have the same K sound.

The rh in rhapsody and the ph in photo have similar origins.

Backing up a bit, the other ch sound, like the one in church came to English from the French. Rather than be consistent, a bunch of these sound like sh (charade, machine) instead.

Enough, through, thought, and many others are reminders that English had as much spitting and coughing as any other germanic language. Over the years, the coughing and spitting went away but the spelling remained.

The sh and wh digraphs also made their way in during the middle ages but a lot less was written about their origins.

All of this leaves me thinking that anyone complaining about how busy C is should shut up and see if they can give H a break instead.



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