Monday, December 15, 2008

the weakness of h

I'm in the midst of writing a paper on stop aspiration in Navajo, which is never regular glottal aspiration like we have in English, but instead palatalized, velarized, and/or labialized. One of the issues I'm grappling with is why the glottal fricative h is a fairly weak phoneme. I have the intuition that it is, both as a speaker of a language that has /h/, and by looking cross-linguistically at languages that have an orthographic h (and thus an historical h) but not a pronounced h, Spanish in particular.

Spanish has the letter h in its orthography, but it is never pronounced, and Spanish speakers are often unable to correctly pronounce the glottal h of English, instead substituting the velar fricative [x] found in Spanish (represented orthographically by j and sometimes g). British English has h-less dialects and h-dropping. I'm a bit puzzled by the prescriptive rule for using the article "an" before a word beginning with h, since I've been told h-dropping in British English is fairly low-class, and thus I fail to see how this pronunciation was immortalized in our rules for good writing.

These facts, combined with the relative rarity of h cross-linguistically when compared to stops or other fricatives, have given me the impression that h is indeed weakly represented somehow, most likely because it is more difficult to perceive clearly than other fricatives. However, I've so far been unable to find any good literature on the matter. I suppose I can always posit the weakness of h myself, but it's always preferable to back up one's own opinions with citations.


NW said...

I think the further back in the mouth a sound gets, the less it is attested. It's like in our phonetics class when we get to pharyngeal fricatives -- the books say that they are attested, maybe, in Arabic.

By that token, /h/ would be nearly non-existent. Maybe if English weren't such a dominant language the textbooks would say so.

[no citations]

Ryan Denzer-King said...

It would be a very interesting study to compare relative frequency of occurrence of sounds at various places of articulation. Pharyngeals are indeed in Arabic, as well as many other Semitic languages, not to mention Wakashan languages on the northwest coast of North America and Caucasian languages.

My instinct is to agree with you about that being why /h/ is fairly rare, but as I said, I'd like to actually look at the distribution, because while my intuition is that it's rare, it does occur in languages with fairly small phonological inventories (as does the glottal stop), unlike, e.g., pharyngeals or even retroflexes.