Chapter 130: The segment [h]

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 130.

The sound [h], variously described as a voiceless glottal fricative or a whispered approximant, tends to have a restricted distribution. It occurs in English and Dutch, but only in syllables that carry stress, i.e. primarily in word-initial position. In most contemporary varieties of the Romance languages French, Spanish and Portuguese, it does not occur, though some varieties have a secondary [h] (in Spanish, deriving from j [x], and in Brazilian Portuguese, deriving from rr).

In Spanish and French, there used to be an [h] sound (written h) that was lost fairly recently, and that still existed in many varieties in the colonial era, in words such as Spanish hecho ‘done’ (from Latin factum) and French haler ‘pull’ (a loanword from Franconian). (The older, Latin-derived [h] was lost early in all Romance languages.)

[h] exists as a major allophone48
[h] exists as a minor allophone6
[h] exists only in loanwords2
[h] does not exist20

In the APiCS languages, the presence or absence of [h] appears to depend primarily on the lexifier: Portuguese-based languages generally lack [h], and the French-based creoles of the Indian Ocean do not have any instances of [h] inherited from older French. By contrast, almost all of the English-based languages have [h], even though this is sometimes unstable and tends to get lost (much as in southern British English varieties).

The Spanish-based creoles generally have [h] deriving from Spanish [x] (written j or g), e.g. Ternate Chabacano hugá ‘play’ (Spanish jugar), Zamboanga Chabacano hénte ‘person’ (Spanish gente), Cavite Chabacano ohas ‘leaves’ (Spanish hojas), Papiamentu muhé ‘woman’ and Media Lengua muhir ‘woman’ (Spanish mujer). In Palenquero, Schwegler (2013) reports that [h] is preserved from earlier or dialectal Spanish in words like hecho ‘done’.

Similarly, in the French creoles of the Caribbean, [h] is preserved from earlier French in words such as halé ‘haul, pull’ (in Guadeloupean, Martinican and Louisiana Creole). In Haitian Creole, it occurs in loans such as hoholi ‘sesame’ (cf. Spanish ajonjolí), but it is marginal and has phonemic status only in the south of Haiti (Fattier 2013). Earlier French [h] is also preserved in Michif, as in dahor ‘outside’. In the Indian Ocean varieties Mauritian and Seychelles Creole, a secondary [h] has developed in the demonstrative/article sa, which is often pronounced [ha].