Erbs and herbs

British people call those green things you keep in your spice rack herbs, pronouncing the H. Here in America, We call ‘em erbs, without the H sound. Is one way more correct than the other? Well, no. Different pronunciations happen within different dialects of one language. But, how we got to our different pronunciations is pretty interesting.

The word herb began being used in the 1300s. It came from the Old French word erbe, which came from the Latin word, herba. When herb came into being, Latin had lost its H sound, and it also was not pronounced in French. So, originally, herb didn’t have the H sound. (Point one, Americans.)

Move ahead to the nineteenth century. Britons decided to go with a technique called “spelling pronunciation,” which means they pronounce the H in herbs because, as Eddie Izzard explains, “there’s a fucking H in it.” (Point one, Brits.)

According to The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage note on herb, this means British people also pronounce these related words with an H: herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore. However, this is not the same for Americans. We pronounce herb and herbal without the H sound; but, we pronounce herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore with the H. Even stranger, we pronounce the male name Herb with the H.

So, if we were to pronounce herb as history had it originally, the American pronunciation would be on target. Yet, at least the British people are consistent with their hard H pronunciations. Bully for them.

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19 thoughts on “Erbs and herbs

  1. I do not know if it now the case but when I was young some sixty years ago, it was considered prpoer to pronounce “hotel” as “otel” as in “an otel”. This was considered rather “toffee nosed” (snobbishand stuck up) by many at that time. I have not heard that usage for a long time, anymore than I have heard a “proper” or “Oxford” accent from BBC TV newscasters.

  2. With reference to Malcolm’s comment on hotel/otel,I am sorry but ‘otel’ was an affection used by the lower classes when doing their version of posh.Since in their everyday speech they cut the first letter of a lot of everyday words as normal. People from the ‘upper classes’ wouldnt do that.

    • Not true. If you read older books you will see ‘an hotel’ and such rather than ‘a’ which is suggestive of an unvoiced H. Taking into consideration the American spelling review, IE: words should be spelled closed to how they’re pronounced, there should not be an hache (notice the silent H?) in herbs or most other words that begin with he.

      I can but conclude, someone did this to seem separate from the British. A number of politicians pay a lot of money to cover up their English roots, not out of shame but Irish, Italian, Scottish etc. are more fashionable and have distinct communities in the U.S (English people are just American Americans).

  3. considering that the brits don’t pronounce the “H” in some words, like in the name, “harry,” for example, I’m surprised they pronounce the letter “H” in the word, “herb”. but then, may be I’m thinking of the famed and rather well-known cockney accent with out taking in to consideration the myriad of other accents in britain.

  4. > The word herb began being used in the 1300s. It came from the Old French word erbe, which came from the Latin word, herba. When herb came into being, Latin had lost its H sound, and it also was not pronounced in French. So, originally, herb didn’t have the H sound. (Point one, Americans.)

    Sure, “herb” didn’t, but “herba” did have an “h” sound in Classical Latin. As you said, the word in Old French was erbe, but the “h” was restored to respect the Latin spelling. British English just goes one step further and actually pronounced that “h”. So if you’re going to play the game of which pronunciation has greater providence, British English pronunciation respects the older Latin pronunciation.

  5. I come from Scotland and we pronounce our words with a greater degree of sound than the English
    so we say words with a bit more emphasis on the structure of the word.
    Words like Wednesday are cut by others to Wensday
    And pronunciation of Scottish Names and Places is so horrible to a Scot’s mans ears
    Names – Menzies – is said in Scotland as Ming ess
    Irvine – Irr- vinn there is a town called Irvine
    And the list goes on and on – Why do the people not contact a person from Scotland (Like me) and
    get the correct pronunciation of words in the Scottish dialect ??

  6. Maybe us Brits should leave the ‘h’ silent to honour the word’s provenance, but if the Americans are really sticklers for its French origin they should pronounce it the way the French do – ‘airb’ not ‘erb’.

  7. They don’t pronounce the h because they’re Americans
    They also say “Noter Dame” (cringe), carmelised, gram crackers, and cilantro…. need I say more.

    • As an American I pride my self on pronouncing the h in herb, correcting people when they say “Noter Dame” and saying “cara-mel” as opposed to saying “car-mel”, although I do say graham crackers. What else would you say? And I use coriander and cilantro interchangeably(although it really annoys my friends when I say coriander)

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