h aspiré in French
In this article, we discuss the following:
French presents some difficulties in terms of how words are written and pronounced when they are 'chained together'. You will be familiar at least with liaison, whereby, under cirtain circumstances, a normally silent consonant is 'hooked' on to the beginning of a following word beginning with a vowel. So normally, for example, final 't's aren't pronounced in il est petit, but are in c'est un petit homme.
Other issues surround the so-called 'mute e' or e muet1 that occurs, for example, in the words le, quatre and semaine. For example, it is common to omit the mute 'e' in pronouncing la semaine (la s'maine) and forces bosniaques, but not in forces serbes. A key point relevant for this discussion is that at the end of a word, a final mute 'e' is generally always elided ("deleted") before another word beginning with a vowel-- whether or not the spelling reflects this-- and that le is often pronounced l' after a vowel and before a following word beginning with a single consonant (so that quatre hommes is pronounced quatr'hommes; dans le car is often pronounced dans l' car).
A third phenomenon, which interacts with both of these other two, is the so-called aspirate h or h aspiré. As we'll see shortly, this is actually a very misleading term. Basically, it refers to cases where a word becomes 'detached' from the previous word where we'd otherwise expect it to be 'chained' via liaison or elision.
h aspiré is an occasional phenomenon that:
The circumstances that trigger h aspiré can be either:
Note that a so-called h aspiré word doesn't necessarily begin with an 'h' in the spelling! For example, the words in, ouate and ululer2 are often treated as h aspiré words.
Does h aspiré behave like a consonant?
It is commonly stated that words beginning with an h aspiré behave as though they begin with a consonant. This is almost true of the written language but not true of the spoken language.
The written language
In the written language, a word beginning with an h aspiré basically behaves as though it began with a consonant: it takes the uncontracted forms of articles, prepositions and subject pronouns (je hais; le hérisson; ce hérisson), including du rather than de l': du hérisson. Such words differ from normal words beginning with a consonant only in that there is sometimes variation in whether a particular word or circumstance triggers h aspiré (d'York and de York are both seen, although nowadays the latter is probably more common).
The spoken language
In the spoken language, h aspiré words (and circumstances triggering h aspiré) actually differ a little from words beginning with a consonant. So in fact, they behave neither like words beginning with consonants nor like words beginning with vowels.
They differ primarily because in the spoken language, h aspiré words block elision and force a previous mute h to be pronounced. Normal words (beginning with either consonant or vowel) don't have this 'forcing' behaviour. Thus, in dans le hall, the le is always 'fully' pronounced because hall is an h aspiré word. Whereas in dans le vestibule, the le can be pronounced l' (so "dans l' vestibule" is pronounced as four syllables), even though this isn't conventionally reflected in the written form.
Circumstances triggering h aspiré
As we noted briefly above, h aspiré is triggered either by certain specific words or by other more general circumstances.
Specific words that trigger h aspiré
The origin of the term h aspiré referred to the fact that the h was pronounced at the beginning of certain words.