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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