Metasyntactic Heuristics—An Idea Whose Time Has Come—G. Berish SpecGram Vol CLXVIII, No 2 Contents From the Archives!—The XT-17 Uzi/Reel-to-Reel Recorder—The SpecGram Archive Elves™

⟨h⟩, the Little Grapheme Soldier

Callum Robson

Readers, to set this article up imagine the following: in films of the war genre, you tend to have one young gutsy private who endeavours to help out his unit no matter what, though usually by the end of the film his efforts are unrewarded and unspoken of as he’s outshone by the leading man with his celebrity good looks.

The linguistic equivalent of this is ⟨h⟩; he’s1 overused, and underused, which usually gets him confused! Sadly, he’s not like ⟨s⟩, who gets all the privileged jobs. Everyone knows ⟨s⟩’s place: marker for plurals, third person singular marker, possessive marker and so forth; ⟨s⟩ is a powerful character if there ever was one! However no matter what ⟨h⟩ does he doesn’t seem to get the recognition for all the great orthographical workand beyondwhich he does.

But dearest reader, I hear you shout, “But surely ⟨h⟩ is like any other letter? He probably does as much as any other orthographical character!” While I appreciate your sentiment, reader, this seems not to be the case. Let us go through some of the instances where ⟨h⟩ is employed, or otherwise made to fulfil some strange orthographical obligation.

Most letters are, give or take, always pronounced in the same fashion, barring some voicing changes. For example, almighty ⟨s⟩, is going to pretty much always be /s/ or /z/.2 However with ⟨h⟩, it’s often the expected /h/, which is fine. However, unbeknownst to those using it, ⟨h⟩ isn’t always /h/for sometimes it’s /ç/! And if we’re to take a brief glimpse at the IPA chart, we may note that /ç/ doesn’t quite share the same place of articulation as /h/, with /ç/ being palatal and /h/ being glottal. So in a sentence like, “one hundred huge blue-hued hounds”, you’d be very lucky to know where to stand, as would ⟨h⟩ for that matter!

And when ⟨h⟩ isn’t busy enough trying to work out which sound he’s supposed to be making by himself, sometimes other letters will say, “Hey, ⟨h⟩, can you come over here a minute?!” Reluctantly ⟨h⟩ must, especially as one of these letters is almighty ⟨s⟩. As you see dear reader, ⟨h⟩ must join up to make some digraphs, the likes of ⟨ch⟩, ⟨sh⟩, ⟨ph⟩, ⟨th⟩, which respectively equate to /t͡ʃ/, /ʃ/, /f/ and /ð/ or /θ/.3 By this token, without ⟨h⟩ we would certainly be in more than a pickle! Though despite the above, ⟨h⟩ seems to have missed out on the meeting to decide how ⟨sugar⟩ is spelled...

One extreme has been shown with the English language, overworking ⟨h⟩. However, a language they call “French” has a somewhat ‘laissez-faire’ attitude when it comes to ⟨h⟩. ⟨h⟩ has turned up all ready and excited to play its part, but French just wants it to sit there and not make a sound. It’s almost as if French is holding a party for all its graphemes, all of which are talking and mingling, while ⟨h⟩ is left awkwardly in the corner to mull how he managed to end up in this language?4

So, it appears as if ⟨h⟩ can’t win. He’s either over- or underworked, not quite sure what he’s supposed to dobut he soldiers on thankfully, because where would we be without him? In closing, thank you for reading this, hopefully you’ve become more aware about the plight of poor little ⟨h⟩. Be certain to have ⟨h⟩ in your thoughts and be thankful for all the work he doesand don’t get me started on ⟨h⟩ dropping and aspiration!

1 ⟨h⟩ is one of the masculine letters.

2 As in ⟨dogs⟩.

3 English 101, even a digraph can have more than one sound attached to it.

4 But they had the best dip, so that was a small saviour.

Metasyntactic HeuristicsAn Idea Whose Time Has ComeG. Berish
From the Archives!The XT-17 Uzi/Reel-to-Reel RecorderThe SpecGram Archive Elves™
SpecGram Vol CLXVIII, No 2 Contents