An herb?

IMG_3417So. A last (for now) comment starting from Stephen Sondheim. I was reading his book Finishing the Hat when I come across a line which includes an herb. Well now, that brings me up short. Sondheim’s pretty hot on grammar, so I know it’s not a mistake. A few moments of reflection and I remember that in American English herb has a silent h. Nonetheless, it’s disquieting, in the same way as hearing Paul Simon on Rhythm of the Saints sing about drinking an erbal brew, rather than a herbal brew.

(I think at one point Sondheim rhymes scone with throne. I’m going to presume that is the standard American English pronunciation. Personally, I would rhyme scone with gone, but poking at that would get us into discussions of language and class in the UK. I really don’t want to start that now.)

Now, don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying erbal brew or an herb are wrong. They are normal for American English. That’s fine. It’s just that I notice them because they are not normal in British English (at least my RP version of it).

But then I’m left wondering why the h is silent. Is it one of these things where pre-modern English had a silent h and the British have started pronouncing it, while the Thirteen Colonies (and the successor states) have stuck with the original? (The same sort of process which makes the American English use of gotten seem quaint and archaic to British ears) Or is it because of the Italian influence on American English (what are zucchini?) with the silent h of Italian slipping into the pronunciation?

I don’t know. But it reminds me once again that whenever you come to a new language you have to leave behind the sounds of your language which you have come to associate with some of the shapes of the alphabet. It’s not that the Italians pronounce z as ts. Rather, there is a letter shape which English associates with the sound z, but Italian associates with the sound ts. (I know, even in writing that, I have ended up using the English associations to reflect the Italian ones – without using the international phonetic alphabet I can’t think of another way of expressing it.)

I suspect this is something which those brought-up with two languages (which includes me) understand better than monoglots. Letters are woozy signposts at best. Any attempt to make them more than that is delusion.