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English pronunciation tips for French speakers 2: the h sound

In this blog we’ll be looking at a second consonant sound worth focusing on for Francophone speakers of English: the /h/ phoneme.

The /h/ sound in English is commonly dropped by French speakers as, in French, it is nearly always pronounced mute, and the word acts as if it starts with a vowel sound. This can result in such utterances as ‘where is the otel?’ and ‘we ad a good time’, where the /h/ is not articulated correctly. Fixing this can make a big difference to anglifying and softening a French accent in English.

The /h/ phoneme is characterised as originating from the velum or soft palate (see vocal tract diagram). Other sounds found in both French and English that originate from the soft palate are the /k/ and /g/ phonemes. Thus, these sounds provide a decent starting point to correctly aspirate the /h/ phoneme.

The /k/ and /g/ phonemes are stop sounds which involve the stoppage and sudden release of air. In making these sounds, the back of the tongue is in contact with the lower side of the velum and is suddenly released to create the stop. It is this release point which is of interest in producing the /h/ sound. If you continue to channel air out from the velum following the release of the /k/ phoneme, you will produce the /h/ phoneme. The /h/ phoneme is quite quiet and does not have a fricative nature. It is simply air channelling through from the velum.

For practice of this sound, here is an excellent resource on youtube:

It is worth mentioning that in some British English dialects H-dropping occurs. This can be seen in Cockney and Yorkshire accents for example. This does not occur in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, however, or in Estuary English (a RP/ Cockney hybrid), which is widely spoken in and around London.

While H-dropping in stressed words in English is not particularly widespread, in unstressed syllables it is much more universal. Stress is a concept we will deal with in more detail in later blogs, but in relation to the /h/ phoneme, it concerns sentence stress. This is the emphasis placed on the most important words in a sentence – called ‘content’ words. Less important ‘function’ words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns, determiners etc.,) are thus subject to de-emphasis. Weak forms of function words such as 'he', 'him', 'her', 'had', 'have', and 'has' would all see h-dropping. Consider as an example the sentence ‘she pushed him through her front door’, in which 'him' would be articulated as im and 'her' as er almost universally in British English dialects.

Another interesting point concerning the /h/ phoneme involves the pronunciation of words starting with the letters 'wh'. Until the beginning of the 20th century, words containing this consonant combination were often pronounced with the /h/ as /hw/. For example, 'what' pronounced as hwat, and 'whether' pronounced as hwether. This now has largely disappeared in England with 'wh' pronounced as /w/ (known as the ‘wine-whine merger’), but can still be seen in Irish and Scottish dialects.

That’s all for this entry. Check back soon for more updates.