The Englishness of H-Dropping

HLongtime readers may notice that I rarely discuss h-dropping. Novices might remember this accent feature from some unfortunate community theatre production of ‘My Fair Lady‘ in which the actress playing Eliza Doolittle bleats ”enry ‘iggins!’ Systematic h-droppers drop the letter ‘h’ at the beginning of words and syllables.

The feature is often mentioned as a divider between middle-class and working-class speech in the UK. It is notoriously common among speakers of Cockney, but appears all over the country, extending to Northern English cities such as Manchester. And it is perhaps the fact that h-dropping occurs in so many parts of England that I give it less thought. In some ways, it’s not dissimilar from the tendency for American urban accents to render ‘them’ and ‘those’ as ‘dem’ and ‘dose:’ Because such pronunciation are found in so many regions, one is hesitant to say they intrinsically belong to any.

For example, someone from Manchester might pronounce the sentence ‘Harry’s right here‘ with both /h/’s dropped:

‘arry’s right here! ([aɹɪz  ɹa:ɪt  ɪə] in the IPA.)

…or might pronounce it with both /h/’s intact:

Harry’s right here! (haɹɪz  ɹa:ɪt  hɪə in the IPA.)

In my mind, our hypothetical h-dropper doesn’t exhibit ‘more’ of a Manchester accent than the guy who keeps his /h/’s.  The first might be described as more ‘marked,’ or more ‘working class’ (maybe), but I don’t see h-dropping as being intrinsic to the Manchester-ness of one’s speech.

What I find peculiar, though, is that this feature, so common in England, is almost unheard of in the United States. That’s not to say it may not appear occasionally in rapid speech, (for example in the phrase ‘I’m not here’), but I’ve never heard an American drop an /h/ in prominent positions such as that in ‘Harry! How are you?’

Heck, forget about America for a second. Why is /h/ dropping seemingly confined to England? A map of the British Isles put together by Icelandic linguist Pétur Knútsson shows that h-dropping doesn’t (apparently) occur in Ireland, Scotland or a large chunk of North Wales*.

Beyond England, h-dropping accents tend to be found in newer colonies, such as Australia and New Zealand. This suggests that perhaps h-dropping is a ‘younger’ feature, and hence why the ‘older’ dialects of America, Scotland and Ireland missed the boat.  But then, why is h-dropping common in Caribbean English, which is in many ways closer to Irish and Scottish English in terms of its conservatism?

H-dropping seems like such a natural process, much like fronting the nasal in ‘going’ or tapping the /t/ in ‘bit of.’ So why does it seem that such a large concentration of h-droppers are in England?

*Knútsson’s map may be based on a work that appears in another text, but if so, he doesn’t state which. Also, while his map confirms my general impressions, I can’t confirm its validity 100%.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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37 Responses to The Englishness of H-Dropping

  1. Ed says:

    H-dropping is becoming less common. If you look through the book “Urban Voices”, you’ll find that almost every chapter says that it is not as common amongst young speakers as it is amongst old speakers.

    /h/ only occurs at the start of a syllable in English, which makes it unusual. That might have something to do with its vulnerability to being dropped.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s my impression as well. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a younger British transplant who consistently drops /h/ (although it seems likely to be one of the first shibboleths to go when someone moves to the States, given how infrequent it is here).

      • Ed says:

        I think you’re right. I find that, when speaking to foreigners in general, h-dropping is one thing that throws them off. Your vowels don’t seem to matter as much.

        Thanks for the link to Peter Knutsson’s site. I was unaware of it. It is quite useful, although I think that the FLEECE merger is 99% complete in northern England now.

      • Darrell says:

        I don’t know if h-dropping was ever completely consistent even in the old days

    • Darrell says:

      I still hear it quite often from young speakers in the West Midlands and East Yorkshire, which agrees with what it says in Urban Voices.

  2. dw says:

    /h/ dropping in the /hj/ cluster (as in “huge”) is more common in North America than in England.

    • m.m. says:

      Even then, its mostly confined to nyc english

    • trawicks says:

      We also drop the /h/ in ‘herb’ and ‘h’ itself, where many Brits maintain it. That would suggest that, like l-vocalization, it’s one of those processes that has come and gone throughout the history of the language. /hj/, on the other hand, strikes me as possibly similar to the pre-liquid /h/ deletion that doomed /hw/ in ‘which.’ Why it seems to occur in certain American accents more than others I’ve never figured out.

    • Ed says:

      In LPD, John Wells lists the /hj-/ forms without [h]. He gives them a $ marker of being non-RP but, as he doesn’t do this with other forms that begin with [h] in RP, he suggests that it’s more common to drop [h] in these words. I am confused by this. I don’t think that English people are any more likely to drop [h] in /hj-/ words than in other words.

  3. Mazzoir says:

    Its a feature of the “new accents” of MLE and Estuary that h’s are not dropped.

    I usually ascribe the H dropping in the Caribbean to the West Country influence, knowing that there is a brilliant Somerset sample on the British Library archive which talks about “h’apples”, intrusive H being a very common feature in caribbean english.

    Of course there is the huge/yuge bugbear to linguistically conservative writers to the broadsheet newspapers of the pronunciation of the name of the letter as “haitch”. Does this happen elsewhere in the english speaking world (h’other than the Caribbean, h’of course).

    • Aoife says:

      The letter H is definitely pronounced haitch in Ireland. People studying for a doctorate get their Pee haitch Dee when they’re done, and many of us think Haitch Bee Owe make some great TV shows.

      I haven’t noticed any H-insertion going round though, so it looks like it’s just the alphabet.

  4. AL says:

    Similar to your “I’m not here” example, I’ve noticed some people drop the h in phrases like “…over ‘ere” or “I got your ___ right ‘ere!”

    I’ve also noticed some people say “an historical…” as if there’s no h in historical.

    • Dw says:

      “An historical” is merely an affectation.

      • trawicks says:

        Oddly, though, it seems to have become a fairly acceptable form, even in academic writing. Type in “a historical,” then “an historical” in Google Scholar, and you’ll find that the former brings up about 2.2 million results, while the latter brings up an impressive 1.3.

  5. Mudge says:

    I’m going to take a wild guess here that pronouncing the “h” is more common, historically, among people who learned English as a foreign language, from writing, e.g., Scots & Irish in the 18th century, and American immigrants. Caribbeans and lower-class English might have stayed illiterate longer, and only spoken as they heard it around them. Scots & Irish who stayed illiterate might have stayed with their own languages. Any chance for this theory?

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Herb and ‘erb seems reversed vis a vis British and Americans.

  7. Tom says:

    Americans do drop the /h/ for just two words I can think of: “him” and “her”.

    “Let ‘im go!”
    “Let ‘er rip!”
    etc.

    • Mudge says:

      There’s a difference between just skipping over the “h” when one is in a hurry, like this, and putting a glottal stop where the “h” is, as I hear in some English accents. I believe French does the same thing sometimes. One more thing for someone to explain.

  8. Bryn Davies says:

    What needs to mentioned in this context is that there a number of words in British English where it is RP to drop the /h/ at the start of a word. The classic example is hotel but there are others. This explains the “an historic” construction. What this means is that there are two completely different types of dropped /h/s used a both ends of the social spectrum.

  9. Chris Waugh says:

    “Beyond England, h-dropping accents tend to be found in newer colonies, such as Australia and New Zealand.”

    Really?! Because my memory of growing up in Aotearoa suggests that h-dropping was one mark of a Pom.

  10. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

    Slightly peripheral to h-dropping but in Ireland the letter is always pronounced as haitch, of course in Northern Ireland there is often observed to be a community difference in pronunciation. With it often said that those pronuncing the letter as haitch belong to the Catholic/nationalist community as oppose to Loyalist/Unionist who tend to pronunce as in Britain (aitch)

  11. AW says:

    If someone drops all ‘h’s, how to they pronounce “ahead” ?

    If the h is omitted in that word it becomes [əɛd], but this is the environment that triggers r-insertion, and I’m sure I’ve never heard “ahead” pronounced [əɹɛd]

    • Aoife says:

      Hmm. From the completely nonscientific process of imagining a H-dropping Br E speaker saying a whole bunch of words and working out what sounded right, I’ve come to a possible, tentative answer. Please correct me if you’re more familiar with these dialects or have actual examples and not imaginary speakers in your heads!

      H-dropping typically occurs word initially. People don’t drop every H in speech. “Ahead” would never have the H dropped. Nor would “mahogany” or “Sahara”. (These H’s are all occurring between two vowels, first unstressed, second stressed. Is that something to do with it? Need more examples!)

      But, H-dropping *can* occur word-internally, as in “un’elpful” or “anti’istamine.” The first is not occurring between two vowels, but the second is. However, they’re both words with a prefix attached, so a guess is that the h-dropping rule occurs before the prefix is attached, so it is solely word-initial.

      So, what I haven’t worked out:
      1. are there examples of mid-word H not being dropped that aren’t between two vowels?
      2. are there mid-word H-dropping examples that don’t involve affixation?

      ARGH, NO SAMPLE DATA! Please help so I can stop bothering my London-raised housemate with questions about whether H would be dropped in antihistamine!

      • Aoife says:

        Eureka!

        Thought of a mid-word between-vowel H being dropped that doesn’t involve affixation that probably answers this! Take the word “behave”. There are two pronunciation options, depending on emphasis: beehave, and buhave.

        Pronouncing the first syllable of the word behave as [bi] (bee) I believe it’s possible to drop the H and get be’ave, (however clumsy it looks in eye-dialect.)

        Pronouncing the first syllable of the word behave as [bə] (buh) it isn’t permitted to drop the H, so you get buhave and not bu?ave or whatever it would be.

        The vowel in bee is long, and the vowel in buh is short.

        So, the rule.
        H is dropped when it appears before a vowel:
        1. if the H is at the start of the word
        2. if the H is following a short vowel
        3. (probably) if the H is following a consonant

        So, H wouldn’t be dropped in “antihistamine” if anti was pronounced with a schwa as final vowel, and affixation almost definitely has nothing to do with it.

  12. boynamedsue says:

    I was listening to a comedy show from Aus the other night, dating from the late 80s, early 90′s, and when of the characters portrayed (an old Rugby league coach) dropped a couple of “h”s. H dropping seems to have once existed in Aus, but at a much lower frequency.

    It’s true that nearly nobody in the UK drops all ‘h’s, but I think almot everbody sometimes drops them. Also it’s worth mentioning the aristocracy were pretty consistent h droppers in the 19th century.

  13. Daio says:

    Yeah, it’s a very old feature.

    H-dropping is a very common feature in south-east Wales and it existed in the Welsh language accent of the area centuries before English was widely spoken there, probably due to trade and immigration from Wessex.

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  15. I hear /h/-deletion more & more frequently from Americans under the age of 35 or so, in casual conversation and on TV. Even when confronted with a recording of themselves, of course, these speakers claim they CANNOT have dropped the occasional /h/ — despite being forced to confront its occasional absence on the recording — “because only English people ever drop an /h/” or “because in some of the words I was saying in that conversation , you and I both ‘eard the /h/: if it was being dropped one time ,it would ‘ave been dropped all the time!”

    • Aoife says:

      Well, with would ‘ave, i.e. “would’ve” or “woulda” is its own thing, not an example of the application of a H-deletion rule.

      Depending on which H’s are dropped from young US speech, it could be an example of occasional accidental mispronunciation in fast speech as opposed to what it is in the British English dialects that use it: a consistent pronunciation rule.

      • Then how about the following, which I’ve heard from Americans?

        I’LL STAY ‘OME

        NEW ‘AMPSHIRE

        WHEN YOU’RE ‘AVING FUN

        ?

        • Aoife says:

          Well it would depend context and frequency really.

          There’d be a continuum of H-dropping, from accidentally skipping the sound in fast speech occasionally (which probably happens to a lot of non H-droppers, H isn’t a very salient sound), to doing that as matter of course in fast or casual speech (and possibly still not noticing it, which might be going on if it’s a regular feature of your speakers’ speech,) to no H being the usual method of pronouncing h-initial words.

  16. Josh says:

    I both hear it and use it all the time, I’m from Essex, where it is perhaps more common than elsewhere

  17. AUDIO NOIR says:

    why h-dropping i so much more common in england than anywhere else i can’t say, but in other european languages like spanish and french it is also written but not pronounced. i think perhaps h is not a particularly strong vowel to begin with but also has the tendency to disrupt the flow of speech when clearly pronounced every time. as far as AmE it is dropped at times but never at the very beginning of the word such as ‘heater’ and never with the consistency like in england. as for intrusive h some southern american accents will say “h’it’s new to me” and even occasionally will still pronounce ‘where’ as ‘huh-wear (although as one syllable).

  18. CK Bigoldi says:

    I find the h-dropping getting worse in the DC area. I keep hearing: The weather is u-mid. He lives in U-ston, Texas. We are u-man. Worst of all, I heard this on WTOP news radio from an announcer: Olympic champion Sarah Use (should be Hughes).

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