A line in the sports pages of the Observer newspaper inspired today’s posting, when it referred to an heroic English defensive effort during football’s European Championships.
Notice anything amiss, boys and girls? When the French invaded us in 1066 – something for which I’ve never forgiven them, especially as they ruined our beautiful Anglo-Saxon language – they left us with a few linguistic headaches. One is that us plain-speaking Saxons call a hotel a hotel, whereas the fancy French call it an ‘otel. This leads to dilemmas over whether to use a or an before certain words beginning with the letter h.
To me, English speakers talking about an ‘otel and so on, just sounds silly. In normal conversation, would you really say it was an ‘eroic defensive effort? If not, then it should really be a heroic defensive effort.
Bill Bryson says that there are only four words which, by convention, have a silent h in English: hour, honest, honour and heir. With words like hotel and heroic things are less certain – but most authorities say they should be preceded by an a – which means the h should be pronounced.
One oddity in this area that’s always struck me is that Americans steadfastly spurn the French spellings of French words adopted into English, such as honor, color etc, but when it comes to pronunciation strangely cling to ‘erbs rather than herbs, which the English don’t.
While we’re on the subject of the French influence on the English language, it always reminds me of a language expert I saw interviewed on a TV programme long ago who was asked whether envelope should be pronounced onvelope. I liked her answer: ‘Yes – but only if you’re French!’