I remember the dictations in elementary school and the headaches of using the H or not in some words. There are no rules of use and the spelling mistakes were not going away. I also remember copying the misspelled word hundreds of times as punishment. I ended up hating it and wondering what was the point with a letter that was useless in the Spanish alphabet. Along time and many copies later, you get used to it. However, sometimes it is necessary to go to the dictionary to solve doubts with those less common words. Obviously, problems arise when writing because H is the only letter in the Spanish alphabet that is silent, that is, it has no sound.
Facts about the letter H
Despite not having any sound, there are more than 2,000 words in our language that begin with the letter H. But we can also find it interspersed in many words, which can drive us crazy. This is the case of words like almohada, zanahoria, or bahía.
Some words in Spanish have an H inside them. They are then said to have an interspersed H. That h can go between two vowels as well as between a consonant and a vowel. The following words are written with an interspersed H:
- Words in which the diphthong ue is preceded by a vowel. For example, cacahuete.
- Words that have been formed from others that begin with h. For example, prehistórica, deshabitada.
It is not strange that many people wonder: Why do we use the letter H if it does not sound? Many may come to think that it is, therefore, a useless letter whose sole objective is to complicate our lives when writing. And it is not something of the present time, but the controversy about the usefulness of the H is something that comes from afar. In fact, over the centuries there have been various attempts to suppress it.
How it all started
The H was not always silent. The first to use it seems to have been the Phoenicians who pronounced it as an aspirated J. Later, the Greeks took it from the Phoenicians, giving it the capital letter that we know today and pronouncing it with very gentle aspiration. The Romans took it in turn from the Greeks and incorporated it into Latin, where little by little its sound was softened.
This is how the H made the leap from Latin to Spanish, where at first it was also pronounced aspirated, accompanied by a small explosion of air very similar to the one that currently characterizes the pronunciation of H in English.
The point is that Spanish was not only heir to the H, but also to numerous Latin words that began with F and that in old Castilian also began with that letter. With the passage of time, that initial F also began to be pronounced aspirated, since it was difficult for Iberians to pronounce the F sound, which led to it being replaced by the H from the 14th century. This is the case, for example, of the word harina, which at the beginning was written “farina” or humo that was written, “fumo”. Something that also affected words that included an interspersed F, like buho, which in Latin was “bufo”.
Thus, the H arrived until the middle of the fourteenth century with aspirational pronunciation in some words, especially in those that began with the Latin F. Being cultured people the one who pronounced it the most. However, from the 15th century on aspired H began to be seen as a vulgarism typical of the lower classes and of poorly educated people, which is why they became completely silent.
But, is it a useless letter?
The point is that, although it rarely has sound today, there are experts who continue to defend that, although many think it, it is not a useless letter. For example, at the time of writing it is used to differentiate words that sound the same in spoken language but that have different meanings, such as hoja and oja, hola and ola or hala and ala. But also, in the case of the interspersed H, it serves to mark hiatuses. This is the case of the word buho, where the H warns the reader that there is a separation between the U and the O.