World Wide Words logo

Herb

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.

Page created 6 May 2000

Support World Wide Words and keep this site alive.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select a site and click Go!

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-her1.htm
Last modified: 6 May 2000.