By Anatoly Liberman
Because of the frequency of the words the, this, that, these, those, them, their, there, then, and with, the letter h probably occurs in our texts more often than any other (for Shakespeare’s epoch thee and thou should have been added). But then of course we have think, three, though, through, thousand, and words with ch, sh, ph, and gh. Despite the prominence of h in written English its status is entirely undeserved, because it performs its most important historical task, namely to designate the sound in words like have, hire, home, and so forth only in word and morpheme initial position (the latter as in rehire, dehydrated, and the like).
The history of h is dramatic. Germanic experienced a change known as the First Consonant Shift (a big shock, as the capitalization above shows). When we compare Latin quod “what” (pronounced kwod) and its Old English cognate hwæt (the same meaning; pronounced with the vowel of Modern Engl. at), we see that Engl. h corresponds to Latin k. A series of such regular correspondences separates Germanic from its non-Germanic Indo-European “relatives,” and this is what the shift is all about. The k ~ h pair is only one of nearly a dozen. When the shifted k arose more than two thousand year ago, it had the sound value of ch in Scots loch, but then the weakening of Germanic consonants set in (linguists call this process lenition), and the guttural sound was one of its casualties: it stopped being guttural and became “mere breath,” as we now have in home and hell. Degraded to breath, or aspiration, h began to disappear. In no other Germanic language has the habit of dropping one’s h’s advanced as far as in English, but it can be observed in all its modern and medieval neighbors, especially in popular speech. For example, in the delightful Middle Dutch narrative poem about the arch-scoundrel Reineke Fox (the French call the beast Reynard) h is dropped on a scale unthinkable in Modern Dutch. Standard English frowns upon h-less words, but in a few cases they managed to assert themselves. For instance, the form preceding modern them was hem, and that is why we say tell’em: it is not th that has been shed, but h. However, what the sound h has lost in pronunciation, the letter h has more than regained on paper.
Each case—the introduction of ch, sh, and gh—deserves a special essay, but I will devote this post only to th. Today th designates a voiceless consonant (as in cloth) and a voiced one (as in clothe). Both sounds existed in Old English, though their occurrence and distribution were partly different from what we find in the modern language, and there were special letters for them—þ (voiceless) and ð (voiced). They go back to the form of two ancient runes. But from early on the Romance tradition became dominant in Germanic scriptoriums: in German, Dutch, and English we find the digraphs (that is, two-letter groups) dh and th. Dh did not stay anywhere, but th did and is ambiguous, for, at least theoretically, it could be used for the sound of modern th as in thick or for a strongly aspirated t. In England, French scribes established spelling rules after the Norman Conquest (1066). That is why we spell move and love with an o and do many other things we do not need, but th is so common that we take it for granted and have long since stopped noticing its ambiguity: th in cloth and th in clothe are spelled alike despite the difference in pronunciation. In today’s Germanic, only Modern Icelandic has retained þ (small), Þ (capital), and ð (small; it never occurs in word initial position). But in what is known as the transcription of the International Phonetic Association, the runic signs are used to designate the voiceless and the voiced sound: this appears as [ðis] and cloth as [kloþ]. This was a good choice.
Everything would have been fine if th were not also used in Greek words for rendering the letter theta. We have it in such monstrosities as phthisis and chthonic. Very few people are so pedantic as to pronounce the initial consonants in them, but th is part of both words. In the Renaissance period, numerous Latin words of Greek origin were respelled to look properly Greek and to lend glamour to the scribes. The surprising thing is that their written form influenced their pronunciation. Let no one say that written language is a more or less faithful but lifeless reflection of spoken language or that five centuries ago so few people were literate that their impact on the popular norm must have been minimal. We still pronounce theater, throne, anthem, enthusiasm, method, orthography, Catholic, and panther with th because it was the pleasure of some excessively learned men to insert h after t in them. But we are lucky to be rid of ethymology, a variant common in old texts.
Once you allow such “ethymologists” to torture language, they will never stop. Author came to English from Latin, via French, but it did not avoid the trend and changed from autor to author. The same happened to authority. In the 16th century, thaking and foethe occurred for taking and foot. With regard to the number of letters in a word, the rule prevailed “the more, the merrier.” Not only English caught the th virus. As late as a hundred years ago many simple German words had th where it did not belong: cf. Gothisch for Gotisch “Gothic,” That for Tat “deed,” and so forth (surely not borrowings from Greek!). English has no business having th in Goth either, but it does! The most familiar remnant of the German vogue is the spelling of Goethe’s name. Goethe Street in Chicago is pronounced go-e-the. The French decided to spell thé “tea” once they became familiar with this “colonial ware,” and when in the middle of the 17th century this word made its way into English from French, it was spelled in the same way, but, apparently, the pronunciation with th did not exist. German Thee for Tee “tea” outlived Engl. thea “tea” and lost its h not too long ago.
Very few th words did not succumb to the tyranny of spelling. Thyme is still a homophone of time. Thomas is tom + as. In British English, Anthony is an + tony, but in America the variant with th took over. Asthma has been recorded in several variants. The saddest case is Thames. I’ll leave alone the vowel, but th is as out of place in it as in thaking. The river name is Celtic in origin; the Romans wrote Tamesis and Tamesa. If I had a penchant for melodrama, how many blood curdling stories I could have told about Elizabeth, Catherine, Theobald, Bartholomew, and Dorothy, let alone about Bethlehem and its brother Bedlam, but enough is enough. Alas, it is too late to reform the spelling of Goth and author, for their pronunciation has caught up with their spelling. Thomas, Catherine, and Elizabeth have taken care of themselves and are mainly known as Tom, Kate, and Betty, whereas thyme will probably survive any reform, even if the time for such a reform ever comes. In this respect I am one of little faith.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”