h

Hollywood H It occurred to me after yesterday’s post that h is an awfully sociable letter. It seems to be used in very many different languages to form digraphs for various purposes. So here is a trawl through some of the digraphs involving h in some of the languages I know something about, and a few that I have just found out about.

The question remains, however, as to exactly why h has been chosen to do so many different orthographic tasks. Any hypotheses will be gratefully received.


In the following table I have listed all the h-digraphs I could think of and given some examples of languages which use them. The list of languages is not meant to be exhaustive and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there are some digraphs I have missed.

bh Irish
ch English, French, German, Italian, Irish, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Welsh
dh Albanian, Cornish, Irish
fh Irish
gh Cornish, English, Irish
kh Vietnamese
lh Portuguese, former Welsh
mh Irish, Welsh
nh Portuguese, Vietnamese, Welsh
ph English, French, German, Irish, Vietnamese, Welsh
rh English, French, Welsh
sh Albanian, English, Irish
th Albanian, English, French, German, Irish, Welsh
wh English
xh Albanian
zh Albanian, Breton

The above doesn’t deal with digraphs where h comes first, but there are quite a few of these: hl hr hw in Old English, hl in Zulu and whole bunch in Icelandic.

Now for a brief look at some of the functions of h in digraphs.

  • To indicate palatal sounds as in Portuguese lh nh
  • To indicate a voiceless (and fricative) variety of a sound as in Welsh rh or Zulu hl
  • To represent fricatives as in English sh th or Albanian dh or German ch or Vietnamese kh
  • To represent affricate sounds as in English or Spanish ch
  • To represent palato-alveolar sounds as in Albanian xh zh or Breton zh
  • As a diacritic grapheme to protect a consonant from the usual effects of a following vowel as in Italian ch and gh
  • Why h? That’s what I wanna know!

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