Wednesday, July 16, 2008

British h-dropping

I don't know a whole lot about British pronunciation, but my impression was that h-dropping (i.e., failing to pronounce the h at the beginning of a word) is considered "low class", and is not present in RP (Received Pronunciation, "the Queen's English"). It is also my understanding that RP is the standard dialect used in broadcasting, public speaking, etc., or at least it was until recently (I seem to remember John Wells blogging about Estuary English overtaking RP in public settings in the past 10-20 years). However, I noticed in a news clip from the 70's or 80's that the newscaster failed to pronounce his h's. There was one particular example that caught my ear. The clip was about Gary Glitter, a pop star from a few decades ago, who was arrested. The newscaster said, "Gary Glitter 'as been arrested." In rapid speech I probably wouldn't even have noticed the h-dropping (after all, even in American English we would probably drop the h in that situation), except that in the newscaster's non-rhotic dialect the "r" at the end of "Glitter" jumped out at me. Since he pronounced the "r", I had to surmise it was in onset position, which means there couldn't have been an h.

So I guess my question is for any British English speakers, or anyone else who knows: what's the deal with h-dropping? Is it common among broadcast speech?


Alex said...

Haitches 'ave a tendency to do that, I think. The one case in which this survives in many proper forms of English -- what my mother taught me was most correct, in fact -- is in the phrase "an historian," pronounced "an istorian."

As I think about standard proper British accents in my head, it seems to me that "Gary Glitter 'as been arrested" is preferable to "Gary Glitta' has been arrested" in fast speech because the first has no glottal stop while the second does. Aitches are fairly weak things and tend to require a breath even to sneak their way in -- I think you'd only notice them if the newscaster were speaking much more slowly, both because they are barely vocalized, and because they take time to form.

Antematter said...

Hi, Ryan --
"H-Dropping", while part of the English language in *certain* words, has expanded tremendously over the past few years. It seems to have become a linguistic "fashion accessory" among the electronic media. The most ridiculous h-droppings can be heard, in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to change the language's pronunciation across a wide range of English dialects, not just the Received Pronunciation of "the Queen's English".
My Canadian dialect (known as "the Niagara Variant of Standard North American English) is one that is under this form of "attack", and I have heard many American newscasters commit the same linguistic faux pas as their Canadian counterparts; even the Aussies have gotten into the dropped-'h' act. If it were confined to Canada, it might be seen as a concession to French-speaking Canadians so that they don't feel badly when they "over-pronounce" the "huhh!" expulsion at the beginnings of "h" words. But, I have to conclude that, along with California "Valley Girl" speech, and the emerging "Urban Accent" (where vowels are pronounced very strangely - e.g. "bed" pronounced as "bad") is another affectation by attention-seeking types, especially those in the electronic media. I think it's best to call them on it whenever it's encountered. (And while we're at it, what's with the "ou" (as in "you")pronunciation that London Brits like Jude Law are using these days? Sounds slightly like the dialect of Irish English that mangles the "ou" sound of words like "now" -- a sort of "swallowed" "gh" sound. Arrrgh.) And, PLEASE -- I hope no one gives me that tired old saw, "Hey, Dude ... it's like a LIVING LANGUAGE, you know?" I say, go ahead and speak slang (don't we all?), but have a care for what you do to the basics of proper pronunciation.

Simon said...

Just to point out.

RP is an accent not a dialect. Standard English is the dialect.