The story of sounds: Episode 13: /h/

We have visited all of the English consonants… except for /h/

 Journey 1

Say this pair /hiːt/ and /iːt/ (heat, eat)

What do you do differently in the first word to sound the /h/?

It’s hard to tell at first isn’t it, because the movement for /h/ is so slight…

OK, so say it again, really slowly, like this: /h….iː….t…./ and try to find the slight movement that gives you /h/.

What you can notice immediately is that /h/ is unvoiced, and that the voice only begins on /iː/.

Check it out….Can you start the voice on /h/? No, well that’s interesting.

So, what is happening to produce the /h/?

Try these pairs where the only difference is the presence of /h/ in the first of each pair. Can you sense the movements that produce /h/?

/hæt/   /æt/    hat, at

/hɑːt/   /ɑːt/   heart, art

/heɪt/   /eɪt/   hate, ate

And what you will begin to notice is that there is a slight movement of the tongue between /h/ and the following vowel.

While saying /h/ some part of your tongue is close enough to the palate to cause a little friction as the air pushes out between tongue and palate. When you move to the following vowel the tongue releases minutely, enough to stop the fricative sound, and to give you the pure voiced vowel instead. You can call this unvoiced fricative sound an aspiration, or refer to it as unvoiced fricative.

Journey 2

Now you can start to notice something else, that /h/ requires a stronger exhalation of air from the lungs than does the vowel alone. During the vowel, any air pressure is used up in making the vocal cords vibrate to produce the voiced sound, and there is not enough air pressure left to enable you to voice the /h/ aspiration. The /h/ requires more pressure to make the aspirated sound than is available when voicing, and that pressure is only available if the sound is unvoiced. (This applies to most other sounds too, that unvoiced sounds tend to be stronger (fortis) ie have more air pressure, than voiced sounds which tap into the air pressure to produce the vibration in the vocal cord, leaving a more gentle (lenis) air flow through the mouth).

So, /h/ has strong air pressure – fortis in the jargon – and makes an unvoiced aspirated or fricative sound. So if that is how the sound is made then where is it made?

Journey 3

Using the same pairs of words above, you can notice that your mouth adopts for the /h/ the same position of tongue, mouth and lips as for the following vowel. In other words there is no single unique position for /h/, rather it adopts the mouth cavity shape required for the following vowel, whatever that is. The jargon for this is onset (ie taking the posture of whatever follows).

So there you have it. /h/ does not have a ‘place of its own’ but can manifest itself in the shape of any vowel, by 1) moving the tongue slightly closer to the palate, just enough to cause the aspiration friction sound, and 2) making sure it is unvoiced, until the start of the vowel proper.

Do you realise what you have just done….? You have uttered the ….. unvoiced fortis fricative onset. Moreover, you also know why it is called that (if not, just check the above text and do the activities!)

If you start by exploring and discovering the muscular positions, then it is easy to give a name and symbol to the experience of that position and the sound produced. But if you start with the name or symbol, unrelated to a muscular posture it is easy to become confused and mystified. This applies to you the teacher, or to your students.

/h/ is interesting because it has one manner of production, but many places of articulation. You can point to any vowel on the pronunciation chart, and invite students to make the /h/sound in that vowel position

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4 Responses to The story of sounds: Episode 13: /h/

  1. eflnotes says:

    nice explanation, not sure digested it all yet though 🙂

    there seems to be a typo :
    /hæt/ /æt/ heart, art

    /hɑːt/ /ɑːt/ hat, at

    ta
    mura

  2. Woops! Thanks for that mura! Better follow my own course…..
    ADdian

  3. pascalansell says:

    Excellent article — thank you. I’ve spent a lot of time correcting /h/ with Italian and Portguese speakers, and have come across a recurring issue. Students aspirate (I think this is the right word!) the wrong word while neglecting the other, e.g. You horrible Englishman would be “You ‘orrible hinglishman”; My holiday in France = “My ‘oliday hin France”.

    Apologies for not using the IPA script but I can’t find where the symbols are.

    Thanks again!

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