SOME years ago, at an evening entertainment at the house of a New York friend, I met an old acquaintance, Sir George—; one of those men, not rare in England, who, not being professed authors, are yet of recognized literary ability, — a sort of which we have not many examples. The occasion was not at all of a literary character; and indeed I believe that in that large company we were the only persons at all connected with literature. It is directly to our present purpose to say not only this, but also that not a few of that company were persons who, although they were, because of their wealth, of more or less social prominence, had not had in early life the advantages of the best social culture, and that this was soon discovered by my discriminating British friend. For late in the evening
I found that he had been observing his fellow guests pretty closely. As we stood apart, looking at the gay throng which filled two large drawing-rooms, and which in a “World of Society” column would have been styled “brilliant,” he said, breaking into a little laugh, “ It’s very funny, — very droll indeed ! How comes it that in this country you never hear an h left off or misplaced, — never ; and yet in England you hear it everywhere, go where you will, except among people of a certain social rank, and even from some of the people that get into their houses ; but here, among your native Americans, never. I have not heard it once.” It need hardly be said that I laughed, too, as I expressed my entire concurrence in his criticism ; but I did not then undertake an explanation of the phenomenon. He was evidently very much impressed by it, for he recurred to it again with emphasis. Plainly, our British guest, as he found in some persons in that company a lack of certain graces of manner and speech to which he had been accustomed, had expected to find also an accompanying lack of h ’s. He might as well have expected the men to wear scalp-locks and tomahawks, and the women embroidery of porcupines’ quills. He was, however, guiltless not only of this, but of all kindred misapprehension. He fully recognized the fact that he was among a people who in blood, language, and manners were essentially English ; and for that very reason he was struck by this difference in the speech of the two peoples.
It is truly a remarkable fact, in the history of language, that two peoples of the same race, acknowledging only one standard of speech, whether in vocabulary, construction, or pronunciation, using the same dictionaries, the literature of both being chiefly produced by the elder, should not only be distinguishable from each other in great measure by such a very trifling variation in speech, but that the younger and the less cultivated, the one which does not pretend, and cannot rightly pretend, to establish the standard of that speech, and which produces much the smaller and much the inferior part of the literature common to the two, should in this respect, universally, even among those of inferior condition and no social or intellectual culture, be correct upon a point which is in the other almost a distinctive trait of superiority in social position, if not in education. The phenomenon is the more impressive because the difference is so very slight, and relates to what can hardly be called a letter. H is indeed a character in the English alphabet; but it is properly neither a consonant nor a vowel. It is simply a breathing; the “rough breathing” of the Greek, in which it is indicated by an accent-like sign over the vowel which it introduces. And this breathing, too, is so very slight that it is just perceptible. To make it at all prominent, so that it would attract attention, would be almost as great a solecism as to omit it altogether, or to use it out of place. To say Hotel (with a big, rough h) would be at least as bad as to say ,otel; and Hoist would be little less startling than hoyster.
Although a very large majority of the subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty do say ’otel, and most of them, yet a much smaller number, do say hoyster, to assume that all of them do so would be unwarranted and injurious. Those who say hotel are, it is true, not many, nor easily found ; but those who say hoyster, although very numerous, a vast multi, tude, forming, indeed, the bulk of the people of England, are much fewer than those who, on the point in question, violate, in degrees various but less atrocious, the now - accepted standard of speech in that country. These two words, thus pronounced, represent the two extremes of the H malady. An Eton and Oxford bred peer may (I do not say always does ; far from it) say ’otel; but hoyster and the like are heard only from those whose associations in their early years were with people in the lowest condition of life,
For it is always to be borne in mind that h in England is a shibboleth distinctive of birth and breeding.1 Not only men of wealth, but highly educated men, scholars and men of scientific acquirements, who write capital letters after their names, “ drop their h’s ” in England ; just as in America men of like position have a nasal twang, and say Mu'ica for America, and the like. Not long ago I heard the president of one of our colleges say fambly for family, and chimbly for chimney, half a dozen times in half an hour. Habits of speech acquired in youth are almost, if not quite, ineradicable. They are surely so after twenty years of age. The British H malady seems, however, to be the most irremediable of all the ills of speech. I have had opportunities of observing that it cannot be removed by long residence in this country, even under conditions the most favorable for the acquirement, through contact and example, of a correct enunciation in this respect, if not in any other. One man whom I have known well for many years, and whom I supposed, on my making his acquaintance, to be American born and bred, startled me, in the first five minutes of our conversation, by saying. “ Ee came into my office.” I saw at once my mistake ; and I discovered afterwards that he was born in a remote rural county in England, that he had never been in London, and had not left his native place until he set out for Liverpool, to emigrate with his family to this Country. He was then only four or five years old ; hut although he was educated here, and his associations were always with intelligent and educated Americans, he had not at thirty-eight years of age acquired the ability to say he, or to utter the aspirate before any accented vowel. Another man, of equal intelligence and much greater acquirements,— for be was a member of one of the learned professions, — surprised me by revealing his birth as suddenly and in the same manner. He was an elderly man; and I learned from him that he had been in New York no less than fifty years ! But the speech of his native country and of his infancy clung to him through the attrition of half a century.
It is a good thing that we so generally conform, on this one point at least, to the accepted standard of speech in England, — which, it should always be remembered, is the only standard ; yet it is not well for us to vaunt ourselves upon our unconscious correctness, nor to flout those of our British cousins who fail in this respect. It would be much better for us to emulate them in those respects — not a few—in which many of the least educated among them are superior to many of the best educated among ourselves.
For this pronunciation of h, as to which my British friend so frankly confessed the general failing of his countrymen and the universal correctness of mine, and which furnishes humorous writers and comic papers in England a neverfailing occasion of girding and gibing at the peculiarities of those who, through no fault of their own, have been deprived in youth of the advantage of the best training and associations, — a too common occasion of sneering and scoffing on the part of those who, by no merit of their own, have enjoyed such advantages, — this h breathing is a fashion in speech which, I venture to say, is, among the " best people ” in modern England, hardly more than seventy-five years old. So far as I have been able to discover the evidence upon the point, it all goes to show that even in the early years of our century the present rule as to the h breathing was far from being absolute, and still farther from being generally followed among those who were regarded as the best speakers. It is shocking to think of Chesterfield in the last century, and Sir Philip Francis in this, saying ’e and 'im, and 'ead and ’eart ; but the sad probability is that they did so, or at least that they might have done so without attracting the attention of their elegant and high-born associates. But only a careful investigation of the traces of language in past generations can reveal the Capricious changes which have taken place in pronunciation. The speech of our own day is to most of us the only utterance of our mother tongue of which we have any conception. Even slight deviation from that is to us not only strange, but ridiculous. But for that very reason, if our forefathers could and should rise up among us, our pronunciation would be just as strange and just as ridiculous to them. In either case there would be the same reason for surprise and laughter; that is, in both cases there would be none. Custom, the custom of the best society, is the only absolute law as to pronunciation, and in most respects and within certain limits the only law of language.
The evidence in regard to the recentness of the change as to h is, most of it, necessarily of a negative sort. Nowadays a British writer of novels, tales, dramas, or humorous sketches of life, who wishes to portray a personage of inferior social position, makes his speech a strong point of external characterization. This is more common now than it was in past times ; but it has always been a main resource for local color and individuality. In England at the present day, and among writers of the generation which has just passed or is just passing away, the misuse of this h breathing is almost the distinctive mark of what is called “vulgarity” in speech. It is something quite different from rusticity or from provincialism in dialect, and is made prominent in the speech of personages who do not exhibit the slightest trace of either. Nor has it more connection with ignorance than with rusticity. A dandy guardsman, who is almost as ignorant as the horse on which he rides to hounds, and whose spelliug, when on rare occasions he writes, is hardly as correct as that of the. learned pig, could no more be guilty of maltreating his h’s than an American born and bred artisan could, or an Irish peasant, in whose very cabin the orthographical pig may have first seen the light; and the “swell,” who heard a man of science or an accomplished journalist violate the present law of English speech in this regard (and both of the supposed cases I have met with) would mentally set him down at once as a cad. It is the vocal sign and token of vulgarity in England ; and it is one which is a never-ending, never-failing provocation of hilarity among the “ hupper classes.”
Now it is noteworthy, as I have casually remarked before,2 that there is in English literature of only two generations ago not the slightest indication that the omission of the h breathing was regarded as peculiar to persons of inferior breeding. It is only within sixty years that the novelists and talewriters and journalists of England have made 'ead and ’eart, for head and heart, and like pronunciations, a sign of the social condition of inferior people. It is only within that time that they have used those pronunciations at all for the purpose of exciting mirth and characterizing the speech of their personages. All other kinds of vulgarity as well as provincialism in speech, Irishisms, Frenchified and even Dutchified talk, have been represented, with more or less faithfulness to nature, by such writers, not only in the early part of this century, but in the last, and even in the dramas and the poetry of the Elizabethan age, and in the ante-Elizabethan poetry; but not this. And not only so : all sorts and varieties of vulgarity in speech (as distinguished from rusticity), of every shade, were freely used by such writers in the early part of the present century, except this one, which I venture to say cannot be found in a book, a periodical, or a newspaper published in England more than about sixty years ago.
One of the minor departments of British journalism, the comic police report, had its origin, like many others, major as well as minor, within that period. At first this was hardly a minor department of journalism, if importance may be determined by success, by the interest excited, and by influence upon the fortunes of a well-known London journal. For this assertion there is good authority. The author of The Great Metropolis3 (who was also the author of Random Recollections of the Lords and Commons), in his very interesting account of the rise and progress of the great London daily newspapers, says of the Morning Herald, which had been established in 1782, that in 1820 “ it was scarcely ever seen or heard of,” and that “ its circulation was as low as 1400 copies per day.” About that time it began to attract attention, “ in consequence of a series of reports of the proceedings of the Bow Street Office [the principal police office of London] which was then commenced in it,” and which were, he says, “ remarkable for their humor.”The writer then, in candor, adds, “ Of course they were, for the most part, caricatures of what actually transpired ; 4 but the public got something to laugh at, and it never troubled itself about the fidelity of the representations. [It never does.] They appeared exclusively in the Herald, agreeably to an arrangement between the proprietors and the writer. Those, therefore, who wished a dish of fun to be served up with breakfast, and could afford sevenpence for it,5 were obliged to procure the Herald. The consequence was that the circulation of the Herald rose with amazing rapidity. In the short space, I have been assured, of little more than a year it trebled its circulation. ” (Vol. ii. p. 31.)
We may be very sure that if peculiarities of speech were made the occasion of the “ humor ” of these articles, and that if the maltreatment of h was at that time, we need not say as remarkable, but anything like as remarkable, a note of vulgarity as it has been for the last forty years in England, we should find this phonetic trait utilized in them with a free hand. Upon this point I am able to speak with some confidence. For in 1824 there was published in London an extraordinary gallimaufry of articles from newspapers and magazines, called The Spirit of the Public Journals. So important a feature of London journalism were these Herald comic police reports then regarded that in this volume there are no less than seventy-two of them reproduced. I have read them, and they are sad stuff. The London folk who, by the thousand, would pay seven-pence sterling for such coarse, vulgar rubbish must have been sorely in need of some relish to their breakfasts. These articles and their success bear witness to a taste in the opulent Londoners of that day which happily has given place to a demand for an intellectually higher and more decent journalism. Good or bad, however, they equally tell a tale which is directly to our present purpose.
As might have been expected, these caricatured and highly spiced sketches of what “ transpired ” in a London police court did make a strong humorous point of the language of the parties to the complaints, who were always of the lower, but not always of the lowest, classes. We have, for example, “ werry impolitely,” “ a bootiful green-house,” “ wulgar liberties,” “ premonstratted [remonstrated] with him,” “ fistesess ” [fists],6 “ upon instinc,” “ tould ’em,” “intosticatedly,” “fat ship ” [sheep], “ vauts the use o’ vauking my legs off after ’em,” “got vell vhopped,” “sick a sulky chap,” “ gemmen ” [gentlemen], “ werry whizzable ” [visible], “ partiklar,” “as how,” “ blowed me up,” " mollished her best cap to rags,” “ skrouged,” “ vorks at the vax,” “a fresh chor of pigtail,” “ I com’d up,” “ a bit arter,” “ ax sister,” “ this ’fernal old Jarman,” “howsomever,” "get me back my vife vot I vere lawfully married to last Monday vere a veek at Shoreditch church,” “inwiggle her avay,” “ then, by goles, I’ll go to Marlborough Street, for I vout be diddled out of my vife in this ere manner, howsomever.” The general tone of these articles is exhibited in the following passage, which, coarse as it is, has more of their characteristic “humor” than appears in most of them : —
“Your Worship,” said he, “ I was sitting by the fire with my wife, talking tolerably quiet, and at last, about ten o’clock, ‘ Mary,’ said I, ‘ I ’ll go to bed.’ She made no reply, and I went to bed; and whatever possessed her I know no more than the child unborn, but I had n’t been in bed many minutes before she rushed into the room, and pulled me, bed, bedstead, and all, slap into the middle of the floor ! Lord bless you, sir!
chairs, tables, pokers, fenders, fire shovels,— nothing came amiss to her! She heaped them upon me like fury ; and as soon as I could disentangle myself from amongst them, she flew at me, tore my shirt off my back, and there was I scampering about stark naked, — saving your Worship’s presence, — and she smacking me round and round the room with a fire shovel ! Only think, your Worship, of being smacked with a fire shovel! Would any good wife do that, I should like to know? I cried murder! ” etc.
That the character of these articles as to language might be seen with sufficient completeness and particularity to warrant a general conclusion, I have given these examples, which, although comparatively few, exhibit that character fairly. Yet notwithstanding the volume in question contains no less than seventy-two of these reports (such an important indication were they of the “spirit of public journals ” of London at that time; they are mingled, by the bye, with all the poetry of the Anti-Jacobin and John Bull, and with articles from the Times, the Morning Chronicle, and many interesting jeux d'esprit and political satires), in all the seventy-two only two instances of the misuse of h appear.7 One of these is, " My Lord Mops [the name, fictitious] said ' the high dear of such a thing was cursed low;” and the other, “ Did n’t I nurse you, and toddle you up, and pay three-years heddication for you at Mr. Tod’s?” Now it is morally certain that in seventytwo articles of this character, in which so strong a point is made of language, if the misuse of h had then been regarded as it is now in England, or even if it had been even so distinctive as to have attracted attention, there would have been a copious exhibition of this marked and, according to the present standard of taste, this laugh-provoking solecism.
Manifestly between the years 1820 and 1824 the maltreatment of h was not so remarkable, or rather so distinctive, a trait of pronunciation in England as it is at present. When we consider the great variety of the blunders in speech which are made the occasion of laughter in these articles, the inference is warranted that the sinking of the h was so common then as not to be regarded as a subject of public ridicule.
The earliest instance of the misuse of h that I have met with in a British publication has for its date the year 1820. It appeared in the Huntingdon Peerage, which was published in London in that year, and which gave a detailed account of the evidence and proceedings connected with the restoration of the earldom, which had been long in abeyance. The writer was Henry Nugent Bell, Esquire, Student of the Inner Temple.8 Mr. Bell, in his search for evidence, went down to a church near Leicester, where, notwithstanding the parish clerk’s remonstrance, he resolved to examine two or three tombstones in the chancel. He thus recounts his interview with the clerk : —-
“ Amen gazed on me with a face of deprecation and amazement, and after a pause, to give distinctness to his response, asked, ‘ Pray, sir, may I ax what countryman you be ? I am sure you heant of our parish, or you would n’t he in such a hurry to go to church this time o’ the night.’ ' And why not, my friend ? ’ ‘ Why, no one in his senses would venture, — that’s all; though I believe there’s nothing in the stories I ’ve heard since I was a boy.’ ‘ Stories! What stories do you mean ? ’ ‘ Why, as how you see one Hastings, a warrior in Holiver Cromwell’s time, canters about a marble horse of his over the gravestones at night. He was sequestrified by the Parliament in those times, which, they say, sticks in his gizzard to this hour. Lord bless us! Sam Caxton told me not five days agone that he rattled one of the tombstones you mention into ten thousand pieces ; howsomdever, that was no very hard matter to do,’ ” etc. (Quoted in the Edinburgh Monthly Review, August, 1820, page 206.)
The writer of the monograph from which this passage is quoted seems to have been not only an observant but a careful and methodical man, and to have made notes promptly of all his experiences ; 9 and we may he pretty sure that he gives “ Amen’s ” remonstrance and story with a reasonable degree of correctness. It is as remarkable for what it omits as it is for the one example of the Hmalady which it records. If the account of such an interview had been written by a gentleman of the Inner Temple nowadays, it need hardly be said that we should have had, " Pray, sir, may I hax w'at countryman you be ? ” “you would n’t be in such a ’urry ; ” “ that’s hall; ” “ the stories I ’ave 'eard; ” “ one ’ Astings, a warrior in Holiver Cromwell’s time, canters about a marble ’orse of ’is hover the gravestones ; ” “ ee, was sequestrified,” etc. And we may be sure — I, at least, am sure — that this was the worthy parish clerk’s way of speaking. The writer, however, was not impressed by the many and various slips upon h which I have indicated, because they were not strange to his ear, and therefore he did not record them. The putting of an extra h upon so prominent a name as that of the great Protector did, however, impress him ; and more, probably, because of the eminence of the name than for any other reason. This is the likelier because of the nature of the one solecism which he did remark, — a distinction which pertains also to the two instances found in the seventy-two humorous police reports in the Morning Herald. It will be perceived that in all of these three instances of an early observation and record of the H solecism the breathing is not dropped, but added: “high dear,” “ hzeddieation,” “ Holiver.” Now even at the present day this error is more remarkable than the other, and is indicative of a lower degree of breeding and association in the speaker than the other is. There are hundreds of thousands of people in England, who “ drop their h’s all over the floor,” who never add a superfluous h, and who would be shocked at hearing it from one of their friends. This is the most aggravated form of the H malady, besides being the most violent distortion of normal pronunciation. When, therefore, we find this the first to be observed and recorded by humorists and writers of character sketches, we may reasonably infer that the lighter and easier error was passed over because it was so common and customable, so familiar to the ears of the writer himself, as not to be observed. All the more would this inference be warranted if there were evidence that about the time when these passages were written the dropping of the h was sufficiently common to elicit remark and protest from professed orthoepists. There is such evidence.
Walker was the first writer upon English orthoepy who treated his subject thoroughly, and with the nice discrimination of a careful and sensitive observer; and even to this day he remains at the head of English orthoepists. His successors have done little else than to work upon the material which he left them, and to record the comparatively few changes in polite speech which have taken place since his time. His pronouncing dictionary, with its copious and minute introduction, was published in 1791. The copy before me is the third edition, published after he had had the benefit of criticism, in 1807. In that, on page xvi., he remarks upon the “Fourth Fault” most to be censured in the speech of Londoners as follows: —
“ A still worse habit than the last prevails, chiefly among the people of London : that of sinking the h at the beginning of words where it ought to be sounded, and of sounding it where it is not seen, or where it ought to be sunk. Thus we not unfrequently hear, especially among children, heart pronounced art and arm harm. This is a vice perfectly similar to that of pronouncing the v for the w and the w for the v, and requires a similar method to correct it.”
The habit, therefore, did then exist, and not only among such people as Mr. Bell’s parish clerk and the Morning Herald’s police-court subjects: it “prevailed ” among people whom a writer like Walker had in mind in the preparation of his dictionary. Nor was it confined to Londoners, even in such a degree as to make it distinctive of their speech. It was rife in counties remote from the metropolis. I myself have observed it in men who told me that they had never been in London, and who must have derived it from their parents and their early associates, who probably, indeed quite surely, were as free as they were from urban contamination. And it is to be remarked and remembered that a habit of speech like this — any general habit of speech, in fact—is always thus inherited. It does not appear suddenly, nor spring out of the ground. It passes insensibly from mouth to mouth, from generation to generation. This H malady was, however, and is, I believe, more prevalent in the south of England than in the north. The fact that it did “ prevail ” in England about the beginning of this century sufficiently to cause a writer like Walker (addressing himself to literate people, who were desirous of learning the most polite speech) to caution his readers against it, and the other fact that the dropping of the h is entirely passed over by contemporary humorous and charactersketch writers, while they do remark and record, although with extremest rarity, so late as 1820 to 1824, the grosser error of adding a superfluous h, make it clear, it would seem, that the former, the suppression of the breathing, was so common as not to attract the attention of literary persons on the lookout for ridiculous peculiarities of speech.
That it was so in the last quarter of the last century Miss Burney has left us evidence, both negative and positive, in her ever-charming Evelina, which was published in 1788. In that book there are vulgar people of various sorts; among them the proverbially vulgar Branghtons, who kept a hosier’s shop in Holborn; and of characteristically vulgar speech we have enough, such as “most impudentest,” “tell him as we han’t no coach here,” “ it i’ n’t the less provokinger,” “you don’t know nothing,” “ the ill-bredest person,” “ spare yourself that there trouble,” “ you han’t no eyes,” “Mr. Smith as lodges on the first floor.” Yet amid all this vulgar speech, and in a book in which the omission of s in is n't (i’ n’t) by the vulgar is continuously and carefully recorded, there is not one example of a dropped h,— not one. To this negative there is added positive evidence, the significance of which seems unmistakable. Every school-boy knows that the form of the indefinite article (whether an or a) is determined by the following word. If that begins with a consonant we drop the n ; if with a vowel, n is retained. Before words beginning with the rough-breathed h we use a, as a horse, a hill, a home, a hotel; before words in which the initial h is silent we use an, as an hour, an heir, an herb. This is normal English speech. Now when we find a writer using an before a word beginning with h we may be sure that writer did not aspirate that h. Miss Burney, in the person of her finely-bred and well-educated heroine, writes, “ When at last we stopped at an hosiers in High Holborn, Sir Clement said nothing.” (Letter xlvi.) This tells the tale : Fanny Burney dropped her h's. To her a hosier was an osier. Not that she took a cockney stocking-vender for a willow twig, but she called him so. As she dropped h ’s herself, of course she did not observe that others did the same.
That the H malady prevailed, or at least existed, before Miss Burney’s time I happen to have evidence at hand. It is in a copy of the first quarto edition of the authorized English Bible, published in 1612. In this book some of its former owners have recorded marriages and births, and among the records are the following : —
“ John Harmond Hand Mary was maried in the yeare of our Lord God 1735 nouember the 25 day.
“ John the son of John Harmond was born the 24 day of June 1737 half a our after tow a clock.”
“ William Stubbs hand Ann Meakins was maried in the year of our Lord God 1787, February the 11.”
We thus find in the middle half of the last century the pronunciation hand for and, and a our for an hour, among people who, however humble their condition (they were probably well-to-do farmers), could write and spell February correctly ! Moreover, the text of the Bible itself is full of evidence of the general habit of suppressing the initial h, even among scholars. This evidence is in the constant use of an before words beginning with h. in which the rough breathing has been heard from good speakers in England for certainly half a century ; whereas a is used before consonants. I give examples below.10
Another trait of speech remarked upon by British orthoepists has a bearing upon the present question. The London Spectator, in a generous review of a book recently published, takes it somewhat to heart that in that book a peer is represented as dropping his g's in participles ending in ng, and a young guardsman as doing the same, and also as being incapable of the letter r, for which he uses w.11 What would have been the anguish of this kindly critic if both peer and guardsman (with whom the readers of The Atlantic are not unacquainted) had been represented as dropping the h in every word beginning with wh, and saying w'at and w'en for what and when, etc.! Yet this might have been done with perfect truthfulness ; and that the writer of that book did not so represent them must have been from a touch of kindly weakness which led him to treat his subjects tenderly, or perhaps from a feeling that it would be pleasanter and more grateful not to overload the speech of his personages with signs of deviation from the accepted standard of pronunciation in England.
For that the majority, the vast majority, of the people of England do thus mutilate the initial wh, and say w’at, w'ich, w'en, etc., for what, which, whe., etc., is as true as that, notwithstanding these and other common deviations from their own standard, their speech is on the whole far pleasanter to the ear than that of the “ average American,” with his generally stricter conformity to the normal standard of English pronunciation. At least seventy per cent. of the people of England, including a large proportion of “ the best speakers,” who would as soon be caught standing on their heads as dropping their initial h's, do drop the h in almost all words beginning with the combination wh. Let any British reader of The Atlantic who is tempted to indignant protest against this assertion pause a moment before declaring that he “denies the allegation and scorns the allegator.” For there is evidence, British testimony, that a hundred years ago this pronunciation was regarded as the normal pronunciation, and that it has continued to this day.
Perry, a British orthoepist of repute, published in 1788 his Royal Standard English Dictionary,12 in which he gives with care and noteworthy minuteness the pronunciation regarded by him as “ standard.” In thoroughness and systematic treatment of the principles of orthoepy — if it has any principles — he is not to be compared with his immediate successor, Walker; but as a recorder of the best usage of his time his evidence is not to be lightly gainsaid. Now Perry gives as the normal standard pronunciation of all, or almost all, words beginning with the combination wh that which sinks the h into silence: for instance, instead of whale wale, wharf warf what wat, wheel weel, when wen, where were,whiff wiff while wile, whip wip, whistle, wistle, whist wist, etc. I find, on examination of the Royal Standard English Dictionary, that the number of wh words which those who consult it are instructed to pronounce without the h is just one hundred, although Perry’s vocabulary is small when compared with the vocabularies of such lexicographers as his contemporaries Sheridan and Walker. Nor would it be safe to reply that his dictionary represents an old and exploded fashion ; for about 1865 13 was published The Universal Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language in five volumes, large octavo, edited by the well-known Thomas Wright, M. A., F. S. A., etc., and in that the same pronunciation of these words is given as correct.
Upon this point we have also the testimony of Walker, who sets forth as follows the “ third fault of the Londoners : ” “The aspirate h is often sunk, particularly in the capital, where we do not find the least distinction of sound between while and wile, whet and wet,where and were,” etc. Here it is to be remarked that this suppression, like the sinking of the initial h, is passed over both in Mr. Bell’s report of the parish clerk’s speech and in the Morning Herald’s police reports, in which all other deviations from our present standard of language are set forth to ridicule with such gusto, particularly the sounding v for w and w for v. True, we have vot for what, but there the point is the v and w one ; and, moreover, to say vhat, or rather hvat, is almost impossible. Walker is again in error in supposing that this v and w trouble is or was peculiar to London, and the same is true as to the suppression of the h in the initial wh. There is ample evidence (of which I must here ask my readers to accept my assurance) that both were widely distributed over England. Indeed, writers on provincial dialect have claimed them as provincialisms ! — being led to do so by a tendency, prevalent among men who give themselves up to a special subject of study, not only to exaggerate its importance and to magnify their office, but to gather subjects with more greed than discrimination, and to look at all things from one point of view.
The suppression of h in the initial wh is recognized also, and briefly remarked upon, by a distinguished philologist, Mr. Henry Sweet, who is a member of the council of the Philological and Early English Text societies, and was president of the British Philological Society. In his History of English Sounds he refers twice, but very briefly, as I have said, to the suppression and confusion of h; considering it, as the subject of his book naturally led him to do, merely as an incident of the phonetic history of language. Under the head of Notes on the Consonants, in his section on the Latest Modern Period of our language, he says of the Scandinavian sounds indicated by the combinations rh, lh, wh, and uh that they are “ nothing else but the breath sounds corresponding to r, l, w, and u respectively,” and that “ modern English preserves one of them in the simplified form of wh ; adding, at the close of some remarks which are not here important to me nor to the readers of The Atlantic, “ The change from hl to l is not, therefore, to be explained as the result of apocope of the initial h, but rather as the leveling of the voiceless lh under the voiced l, — a change which is at the present moment being carried out with the only remaining sound of this group, the wh.” (Page 75.) That is, the suppression of h in wh (as wen for when), which at the present moment is being carried out, is to be regarded as a leveling of the voiceless wh under the voiced w. And in his remarks on Transposition, in the section General Alphabetics, he says,
“ There seem also to be cases of transposition in different words or whole classes of words, such as the confusion between ’air = hair and hair = air, which seems to he often made in the London dialect.” (Page 14.)
It would be well, pleasant, and it certainly might be prudent, for an amateur to accept with acquiescing deference the opinions of a philologist like Mr. Sweet; and this I should do upon any question as to theory in speech-history. But upon a point like this, which is merely one of fact and observation, I venture to express disagreement. Indeed, Mr. Sweet’s last-quoted remark, that the confusion between ’air = hair and hair = air “ seems to be often made in the London dialect” must have already provoked a smile from observant readers, who have had opportunities of knowing anything of the subject. They will be inclined to exclaim with Hamlet, “ I know not seems ! ” Why, the confusion pervades all Southern England, rural and urban ! And as to the suppression of h in the combination wh being a change which " is at the present moment being carried out,” it is, on the contrary, beginning slowly to pass away. For general (not universal) as it is in England, it is less prevalent than it was a century ago, when, as we have seen, an orthoepist like Perry gave it as the normal pronunciation of one hundred words beginning with wh !
The truth upon this subject seems to be that while the full wh, or rather hw, sound is rightly insisted upon as normal, and is conformed to by a small proportion of the best speakers in England, the weight of general usage even among such speakers was, and even yet is, so largely on the side of the suppression or sinking of the h that orthoepists and lexicographers, who content themselves with recording what is, and do not give themselves to insisting upon what ought to be (to which Walker had a tendency), declare in favor of w’at and w’ich, instead of what and which, and so forth.
As to the dropping of g in the ng of the final unaccented syllable of participles (bein’, seein’, doin’, amusin’, and buyin', for being, seeing, doing, amusing, and buying), the exhibition of which by a peer has disturbed the London Spectator and other British critics, it was asserted even by Walker to be the polite, and indeed the universal, pronunciation of such words. Rebutting assertions to the contrary by some writers upon language, he says, —
“ We are told, even by teachers of English, that ing, in the words singing, bringing, and swinging, must be pronounced with the ringing sound which is heard when the accent is on those letters, in king, sing, and wing, and not as if written without the g, as singin, bringin, swingin. No one can be a greater advocate than I am for the strictest adherence to orthography, as long as the public pronunciation pays the least attention to it; but when I find letters given up by the public, with respect to sound, I then consider them as ciphers; and, if my observation does not greatly fail me, I can assert that our best speakers do not invariably pronounce the participial ing so as to rhyme with sing, king, and ring. Indeed, a very obvious exception seems to offer itself in those verbs that end in these letters, as a repetition of the ringing sound would have a very bad effect on the ear; and therefore, instead of singing, bringing, and flinging, our best speakers are heard to pronounce singin, bringin, and flingin.” (Dictionary, p. 52, ed. 1807.)
This, then, according to the testimony of the best English orthoepist of his time, and the one the most nearly “ authoritative ” that has ever written, was the pronunciation of “ the best speakers” in England eighty years ago, — the pronunciation of the fathers of the mature men among the best speakers in the England of to-day. Is it not natural, is it not to be expected, that a very large proportion of those best speakers of today should retain the pronunciation which they heard at home in their childhood ? IN fact, they do retain it. Seven in ten of the superior and best bred speakers in England say singin' and bringin’ and flingin' to-day, just as their highbred fathers and grandfathers did in 1807.14 It is more common with them than it is with speakers of the class just below them: the reason of which, I think, is that they, the former, depend more upon tradition and association in the formation of their haoits of speech ; while the latter, conscious of defect and desirous of improvement, in their endeavor after correctness study more, depend more upon books, upon dictionaries and grammars, and thus conform more strictly and consciously to the proclaimed standard of orthoepy.
As to the suppression of r in the first syllable of words like pardon, which, in the speech of an Englishman of high social position, has provoked a wondering and dissenting comment like that elicited by the suppression of g in ing of participles, Mr. Sweet recognizes this absolutely. In his Full Word Lists (in which, by the way, he concerns himself only with purely English words, in distinction from those of Latin, French, and Italian derivation), he records the disappearance of r in the modern pronunciation of harvest, darling, and morning. He is right, according to my observation. Those words are generally pronounced in England, and quite commonly in the United States, hahvest, dahling, mawning. If his scheme had included all the words now in accepted English in which r appears in a like position, I am sure that in all he would have recorded its suppression.
Alexander J. Ellis, too, eminent as a philologist, and facile princess among British phonologists, in his great work on English Pronunciation, records the following pronunciations, taken down immediately after hearing them. By Professor Jowett, master of Baliol College, Oxford: attachin’ ’imself to ’im, for attaching himself to him ; describin’ ’im, for describing him ; lectsha and natsha, for lecture and nature; ventshahd, for ventured: by Dr. Hooker, president of the British Association : eitha, for either; so neitha ; undataken, for undertaken : by a peer : obse'vin', for observing ; brighta, for brighter; conve’sant, for conversant; directa, for director ; pa’cels, for parcels; my laud, for my lord (r, Mr. Ellis remarks distinctly absent) ; cha’rmen, for chairmen: by a physician : futsha, for future ; ’ospital, for hospital: 15 by Professor Tyndal, and very many speakers : stren'thened, for strengthened : by certain professional men : boa'd, for board ; rema'ks, for remarks.16
What I have written in the foregoing pages, and elsewhere have in other ways set forth upon this subject, is not, as some have seemed to suppose, a criticism of the standard of speech in England. Such criticism would ill become me. That which is according to the recognized standard of speech in England is English. As to this point there can be no dispute. If the orthoepists of England and the best speakers of England unite in opinion and in practice upon bein’ and seein' and singin’ as the pronunciation of being, seeing, and singing ; upon wat and wich and wip and wistle as the pronunciation of what and which and whip and whistle ; upon pahdon and hahvest and dahlin' and mawnin’ as the pronunciation of pardon and harvest and darling and morning; and even, I will add, upon ’ead and ’art and hair and ’air as the pronunciation of head and heart and air and hair, those are the English pronunciations of the day, and people who do not pronounce in that way do not speak good English. But I venture to say that this is not the case, and that the orthoepists of England and a considerable number of tbe best bred and best educated people there support, by opinion and by practice, a pronunciation in which the h’s and r’s and g’s are enunciated. The simple fact of the case is that in England there is, even in “ the best society,” a frequent and often a wide variation from the recognized standard of normal speech, — a variation which in regard to pronunciation, the sounds of letters, is much greater than any that will be found in corresponding classes of speakers in the United States. The speech of a well-bred Englishman when it conforms to the recognized standard in England is perfect and admirable ; but in case of a very considerable number of such speakers it does not so conform.
Why is it, then, that the presentation in fiction of persons who in this respect are representative provokes the British critic, if not to resentment, at least to denial, to scoffing, and to irony ? Observant orthoepists record certain phonetic facts in England, and there is evidence and testimony in their support; yet when a concrete English gentleman of high social position is represented as speaking merely in accordance with this evidence, this testimony, this eminent professional opinion, the British critic revolts. The reasons seem plain : first, the assumption (altogether unfounded) that there is a general conformity among well-bred Englishmen to the received standard of pronunciation; next, lack of opportunities of observation ; last, defective perception. Not I, but the leading phonetist in England, shall decide this point. Mr. Ellis says : —
“ In past times we are obliged to be content with a very rough approximation to the sounds uttered. . . . But at the present day, with tbe language in tbe air around ns, surely it must be easy to determine what is said ? It is not at all easy. There is first required a power, not acquired without considerable training, of appreciating utterance different from one’s own. It is indeed remarkable how unconscious the greater number of persons appear to be that any one in ordinary society pronounces differently from themselves. If there is something very uncommon, it may strike them that the speaker spoke “strangely” or “curiously,” that “ there was something odd about his pronunciation ; ” but to point to the singularity, to determine in what respects the new sound differs from their own, baffles most people, even literary men.” ( Ubi supra, page 1086.)
The truth is that the average review or newspaper critic in England who undertakes to give judgment upon this point is not to be trusted, simply because, as Mr. Ellis points out, he does not hear the variations in pronunciation around him. Oftenest he does not hear, does not perceive them at all; and when in some cases he does perceive, he cannot discriminate.
Speech in England, according to my observation, may be roughly divided into four grades : —
First, that of the best speakers among the nobility and gentry ; men, and, above all, women, who to superior breeding and association with highly cultivated people add high education, good taste, and a sensitive organization. This body is numerically large, but comparatively small, including about three tenths of the upper classes and the best bred of the literary class. From them we hear home, hotel, humor,hospital, etc. ; what, which, whip, etc.; being, seeing, singing, etc.
Second, that of the average speakers among the nobility and gentry ; men well bred, many of them highly educated, and some of singular ability, but less sensitive than the former, somewhat careless, and ready to catch and merely reproduce what they hear about them. A comparatively large body, this, including about seven tenths of the upper classes. From these we hear ’otel always, and ’ome when the word is preceded by a consonant, as “at ’ome,” but generally hminor and hmspital.17 Excepting in the two former words, their initial h’s are absolutely correct, and correspond to those of the first class. But they say w'en, w'ich, and w'ip, for when,which, and whip ; seein’, bein’, and buyin’, etc., for seeing, being, and buying ;and pahdon, dahling, and mawning, for pardon, darling, and morning. This large body of speakers includes a great number of what is known as the upper middle class.
Third, the inferior speakers of the middle class, whose speech is so various, not only in its degrees of correctness and incorrectness, but in the manner of its incorrectness, that to define and arrange it would require a chapter. This class includes the bulk of the reading and writing people of England : the large majority of the inhabitants of London and all the great towns, the better class of the villagers and farmers, and even some artisans. Of these a very considerable number speak with greater precision, more according to book, than many of the second class do ; but the speech of the large majority is of course much inferior to that of the other, and is in itself an unmistakable indication of their rank. Throughout this class the initial h is dropped freely; and we have, as a rule, the pronunciation exemplified by ’ead, ’art, ’ouse, and ’and, etc., for head, heart, house, and hand, etc.; and ’oo, w’ich,w’en, and w’ip, for who, which, when, and whip, etc. But the suppression of the final g in participles and of r at the end of a first accented syllable is not so common (if I may trust my observation) as it is in the second class, — hardly commoner than it is in the United States ; although in this class, too, it is the rule.
Fourth, the lower and lowest class of speakers, including the rough and the wretched of town and country ; people in an extravagant caricature of whose peculiarities of speech not a little of the laugh-provoking power of Dickens’s novels consisted. This class is so large, and is so diversified by local peculiarities pertaining to the various towns and counties, that it has indeed no bond of unity, except its common inferiority. Passing entirely over rustic and urban peculiarities and certain monstrosities common to the class, and confining ourselves to the sounds already remarked upon, we have in this grade not only the dropped h, but even, as a rule, the added h, — the transposition mentioned by Mr. Sweet. It may be safely said that, as a rule, in this class a monosyllable, or an accented syllable beginning with an h, is always pronounced without the breathing, and one without an h is always pronounced with one. We have not only ’ead and ’art and ’ouse, and so forth, but harm for arm, hoak for oak,highdear for idea,heddication for education, and so forth. Here, too, we have hanythink for anything, and, among the least educated artisans, mayogany for mahogany. The former is remarkable, not only for the addition of the h, but for the strengthening of the final g into k, — the very g which so many elegant speakers sink entirely ; and this is so strong in this class that “ anything else ” sounds like hannythink gelse. The change in the first syllable of mahogany (from mă to may) is due to the sinking of the h between the a and the o. To say mă-ogany is not easy; and so pressing is the tendency to suppress the h that the stronger and more difficult may is unconsciously preferred to the weaker and more easily uttered mă. To remark upon the fate of wh, ng, and r in the mouths of speakers of this grade would be to waste our time; and yet there is something in their speech, with all its faults, that is much pleasanter than a pronunciation unexceptionably correct as to the sounding of letters or syllables, but uttered in a hard, nasal monotone.
Richard Grant White.
- Not exactly of mere social position. For, as the very competent British critic referred to in the openin'; of this paper said, people who maltreat their h's do get into the houses of born gentlefolk. How this happens, and what a social touch-tone the letter is, the following passages from novels of the day illustrate. In the first, the speaker is a high-born young “ swell,” who coaches new aspirants to social honors : —↩
- “ To tell you the truth, I could pull the Tompkinses through another season, but I am keeping all my best ideas for the Bodwinkles. Bodwinkle’s first ball is to cost £2000. He wanted me to do it for £1500, and I should have been able to do it for that if Mrs. Bodwinkle had had any h’s; but the créme de la créme require an absence of aspirations to be made up to them somehow.” (Piccadilly, by Lawrence Oliphant, Part III.)↩
- In the next, a very highly finished marquis is persuading his son and heir to marry the daughter of a rich trader, whom the son has not yet seen : —↩
- “‘She is quite all she ought to be, as far as features go.’↩
- “ ' Am I then to suppose she drops her h’s ? ’ asks Lord Clontarf [the son] gloomily. “‘For the second time,’ says the marquis reproachfully, ‘you would seek to convict me of wanton cruelty. There can be no question about h’s, because she is an Irishwoman.’ ” (Doris, by “The Duchess,” chap, i.)↩
- I have an illustration cut from the London Punch or Fun, upon which I cannot just now lay my hand, which represents a peer and a member of Parliament chatting together in the peer’s house; and the M. P. slaughters his h’s,↩
- England Without and Within, chap. xvi.↩
- London, 2 vols. 1836.↩
- This queer use of transpired, it will be seen, is not an “Americanism.”↩
- Fourteen cents: quite equal to twenty-five cents in New York to-day !↩
- This might betaken for a grotesque and untruthful exaggeration, but the orthoepist Walker remarks upon it as a peculiarity of low London speech in the early years of this century.↩
- I should say that my copy of this book, which I picked up at a book-stall, is mutilated by the loss of a few pages.↩
- See also by this gentleman’s style and title that neither were “ three - barreled names" "Americanisms” seventy years ago.↩
- The article in the Monthly Review is twenty-four pages long, and is rich in extracts.↩
- “An hair, an habergeon, an habitation, an hammer, an high hand (but a strong hand), an handbreadth, an hundred (this prevailed till very recently), an harlot, an haughty spirit, an head, an heap (but a great heap), an heart, an heavy heart (but a proud heart), an hedge, an heifer, an helmet, an help, an herdman, an heritage (but a goodly heritage), au hill, an bin, an hired servant, an homer, an hoof, an hook, an horn, an horse (but a red horse), an host (but a great host), an house (but a sure house), an husband (but a bloody husband), an hypocrite.”↩
- It is worth while to add that in The Witch of Edmonton, by Ford and Dekker (which I happened to be reading with quite another than our present purpose, when I was writing this article), we have “an honest man,” as we might expect ; but we also have “an hard case, an husband, an homely man, an hair’s breadth, an high morris, an hundred.” It would be unreasonable to believe that an, used in the first, instance because the following h was silent, was used in the other cases before an h aspirated. And so as to the examples cited from the Bible.↩
- This difficulty with r, and the use of w instead, is far from being general in England, but pertains almost exclusively to the upper classes, and among them is found very rarely in women. I remember but one instance. Among men of this class it is not uncommon. See the following illustrations from two social sketches by Du Maurier and Charles Keene in Punch.↩
- A young swell is talking with an elder swell who is in the army : —↩
- “ Swell Jun. (in a sketchy manner!. ' Ah ! ’ve been staying at Woolwich lately. D’lightful s’ciety there. Knew most o’ th’ officers. Jolly fellows. Ah, d’ you ? ’↩
- “ Swell Sen. (stwangear to the other fellaw). ‘ ’Bject to gawison town m’self ; have to meet so many second-wate men.’ ” The second is “at Mrs. Lyon Chacer’s small and early.” A belle and two cavaliers are looking at a knot of woman’s-rights advocates : —↩
- “ Fair Enthusiast. ‘Look! look! There stands Miss Gander Bellwether, the famous champion of woman’s rights, the future founder of a new philosophy ! Is n’t it a pretty sight to see the rising young geniuses of the day all flocking to her side, and hanging on her lips, and feasting on the sad and earnest utterances wrung from her indignant heart by the wrongs of her wretched sex? Oh, is n’t she divine, Captain Dandelion ? '↩
- “ Captain Dandelion (of the 17th Waltzers). ‘Haw ! ’fair of taste, you know. Wather pwefer she-women myself; wather pwefer the watched sex with all its wongs. Haw !'↩
- “ Mr. Mille fleurs (of the Ess. Bouquet Club). 1 Haw ! Wather a gwubby, sewubby lot, the wising young geniuses. Haw, aw ! ’ ”↩
- To assume that this vewy stwange style of speaking is wholly confined to dawdlers of the Dandelion, Millefieurs, and Dundreary type, or is a passing trait of recent origin, would be erroneous. The author of Random Recollections of the House of Commons recorded nearly fifty years ago (1836) the prevalence of this r difficulty among members of that body. Writing of Mr. Gisborne, he says, “He is not a fine speaker. He is one of the many members in the house who labor under a defect in their organs of speech when attempting to pronounce the letter r.” (Page 274.)↩
- This is the date of my copy. The first edition may have been published a few years earlier. Here Lowndes gives no help.↩
- The boob is published without date ; a literary crime not uncommon with publishers of dictionaries, maps, and gazetteers.↩
- And as I have heretofore pointed out, Mr. Punch (good authority on such subjects) represents dukes and duchesses and “swells” as saying goin’, puddin', and huntin'.↩
- Only this last summer I had the pleasure of meeting one of them several times in New York, and a very accomplished, charming, and admirable man he was. I had not been in his company ten minutes before he said bein', seein', amusin', and buyin'.↩
- Here Mr. Ellis remarks, “This one speaker invariably omitted the aspirate in this word only, even to the extent of saying ' a nospital,’ for an hospital, — an archaism.” Perhaps so; certainly so as regards the declared standard of English orthoepy. But I could show Mr. Ellis a score and more of examples from British authors of repute, taken from books published within the last ten years, in which “ an hospital ” was written and is printed.↩
- See the following examples, found casually as this article was in proof: —↩
- Scene: A railway station. Swell at the office window.↩
- “ Railway Clerk. ' Have you twopence, sir ? ’↩
- “ Swell. ‘ Deaw, no ! Ncvaw had twopence in my life.’↩
- “ Railway Clerk. ‘Then I must give you tenpence in copper, sir.’ ”↩
- Young Ponsonby cuts the army, and goes to Oxford to read for the Church.↩
- “ Tutor. ' You are prepared to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles? ’↩
- “Ponsonby. ‘Ah—’th pleashah. Ah — how much ? ’ ”↩
- And a young swell clergyman reading service said, —↩
- “Heah beginneth the first chaptah,” etc.↩
- Evidence of this also in the use of an. “A. hotel” is heard with extremest rarity; “an hotel,” commonly. Thus, Miss Florence Marryatt: “ And then he pays his bill and walks off to an hotel, and refuses to enter the house.” (Peeress and Player, chap. ii.) In nine cases out of ten “ at home ” sounds attome.↩