Ever wondered why in French we say l’hôpital but le haricot ?
So many times in my time in France I’ve asked French people and they say “c’est juste comme ça” and my brain has gone “nooo, there must be a reason. I need to know!”
Has this happened to you too?
Well, I found the reason and it’s that there are 2 kinds of H in the French language. My mind was blown 🤯 . Du coup, if this is new information to you, keep on reading, or check out the video.
Two kinds of H in French
Alors, the French language is not known for its easy pronunciation. Tricky sounds are everywhere for English speakers and pronunciation can change depending on the letters before and after.
One thing that kept me stuck for ages is why we say l’hôpital (hospital), l’hôtel (hotel), and l’histoire (story, history) yet le haricot (bean), le hameau (hamlet), and le hamster (hamster) when all 6 start with the same letter.
Equally, why make the liaison with les hôpitaux, les hôtels, and les histoires – pronouncing them like lezhopitaux etc – in the plural form, but then when have to say les haricots, les hameaux, and les hamsters, boom, no liaison?
Then I learned that there are 2 kinds of H in the French language: le H muet and le H aspiré.
Le H muet
Le H muet translates to the silent H or mute H. It is not pronounced, which is why we elide le and la to l’ and why we make the liaison when there is les in front of it.
We’re essentially imagining that the H isn’t there and we’re eliding the le/la into l’ just like we would in front of any vowel: L’initiative, l’océan, l’alphabet.
L’hôpital (hospital), l’hôtel (hotel), l’histoire (history/story), l’herbe (herb), l’habitude (habit), l’heure (time), l’horloge (clock) all have un H muet.
Some verbs that have an H muet include habiter (to live), héberger (to house), and s’habituer (to get used to). You can tell with that last one because it’s s’ and not se habituer.
Le H aspiré on the other hand is also silent but there’s no elision.
That is le/la don’t become l’. Le haricot (bean), le hameau (hamlet), le hamster (hamster), le héros (hero) take un H aspiré.
Some verbs with an H aspiré include hurler (to yell), harceler (to harass), hanter (to haunt). We say je hurle, je harcèle, and je hante rather than j’hurle, j’harcèle, and j’hante.
So, it’s satisfying to know that there IS a reason why it’s la hauteur (height) but l’horrible expérience (the horrible experience).
But how do we remember or recognise which words start with un H muet and which start with an H aspiré? Is there a rule? Well… no, unfortunately.
According to TV5 Monde, the answer is in the etymology of the words.
Words from Latin have an H muet, and words from more Germanic origins have an H aspiré.
I’m not going to go any further into that in this lesson because I just want you to come away being more comfortable pronouncing these words.
Alors, while there’s no easy rule, here are my 3 tips for MORE accurately pronouncing words starting with H:
3 tips for choosing the correct pronunciation
Tip #1 – Stay alert to articles
Tip number 1 is to stay alert to whether or not they are written with a full article when singular, i.e. le and la, or written with an elided article l’.
If it’s le or la, you know it’s an H aspiré. Equally, if you see it conjugated with je, is it je or j’. If je, it’s an H aspiré.
Tip #2 – ce or cet?
Tip number 2 is to look out for when a noun or adjective has ce, cette, or cet in front of it. We say cette femme because cette goes with feminine nouns, and ce livre because ce goes with masculine nouns.
We say cet homme because cet goes with masculine nouns that start with a vowel OR an H muet.
HOWEVER, if it’s an H aspiré, it stays as ce. Ce héros. Nope, that’s not a typo. There is an s for the singular form. Plural would be ces héros. And there’s no liaison between s and h. Ces + breath + héros.
Tip #3 – Guess
Tip number 3 iiiisss: to guess.
In the heat of the moment, or dans le feu de l’action that is a real conversation, the most important thing is to se faire comprendre: to be understood.
A common mistake amongst French natives is to say leZaricots instead of les + breath + haricots. I’ve heard it. So it’s far from the end of the word if you make the same error.
You get better by trying and either getting corrected or by stumbling across the pronunciation over the course of your studies.
Voilà voilà, I am by no means a pronunciation expert. I just wanted to share this with you because not knowing that there were 2 types of H plagued me for so long. For many people, it doesn’t bother them at all, but my guess is that if you have watched up to now, you are a bit like me so I hope you have found this lesson valuable. If so please do click that thumbs up button down below.
This is simply an introduction to les H en français so please feel free to go further and research more details and specific examples and leave your findings in the comments below!
For my 6 tips on how to speak French with more confidence as a foreigner, you can download my free guide via the link in the video description.
But until next time tout le monde, merci beaucoup d’avoir lu cette leçcon, and I will see you, la prochaine fois. Ciao ciao !