A Brief History of the Letter H

the letter h, phoenician, author, silentThough it’s a high-value letter in Scrabble and Words with Friends, H is a relatively common letter. Statistically speaking, it is the eighth most commonly used letter in the English language. That’s because H is usually paired with other consonants like wh, ch, sh, and gh. H is found in the most common two-letter pair (th) and in the most common three-letter combination (the).  (The letter H is typically pronounced aitch.)

Where did the letter come from, though? It can be traced back to Northern Semitic languages and today is the English corollary to the Hebrew letter heth, which is pronounced as it is spelled. (Some letters like u and j are relatively new to written language. Who is responsible for the letter J?)

Phoenician and proto-Semitic languages are the earliest recorded alphabets that use symbols to represent sounds rather than to represent things like Egyptian hieroglyphics. (Greek is considered the first true alphabet because it uses symbols to represent both consonant and vowel sounds). In proto-Semitic, the letter H was also the word for thread or fence, and if you look at the letter H, it is still clear that it looks like a portion of a fence.

Like most stories of the English language, the tale of the H involves scribes in England in the 1000s and 1100s. As the French influence on Middle English began, the letter h kept moving around, coming in and out of words. Take the word author. The word originally entered the language from French as autour, but around the 1500s, scribes started inserting the h and changed it into author. Scribes also put Hs on the beginning of words, even though the Hs remained silent, as in the words honest and historical. So today we often put the article an before words that start with a silent H, as in the phrase, “an honest Joe.” (Why do we capitalize letters in the first place? Find out.)

What other letters of the English language would you like to learn about? Do you have a favorite letter?