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 work
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/
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-
So, it appears as if ⟨h⟩ can’t win. He’s either over- or underworked, not quite sure what he’s supposed to do
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.
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