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Q From Ian Harrison in South Africa: Although this is not strictly a word query, seeing that you have mentioned the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, I have wondered why on several American TV programmes, the characters pronounce the word herb without the h. Is this general or just a regional dialect?

A It is standard American English; in a 1993 pronunciation survey quoted in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 90% of Americans used the pronunciation without the h. (They do, however, sound it in the proper name Herb.) It does sound odd to anybody from another English-language community; to drop the h in British English, for example, would be classed as a solecism of the deepest hue, whereas in the USA it’s a mistake to sound it.

It’s an example of a type of linguistic conservatism sometimes found in American English. Until the sixteenth century the word was usually spelled erb — the English got it from the French, who didn’t say the first letter either. Down to the nineteenth century, long after the h had been added under later French influence, that was also the way it was said. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American colonists took this state of affairs with them. During the nineteenth century, British people began to say the first letter, as a result of what linguists call a spelling pronunciation.

So Americans kept the old pronunciation while British speakers changed it. A sneaky trick, but there it is.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 May 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 May 2000.