Herb? Or 'erb?

March 10, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

Answering the question, "Which is correct - herb or 'erb?" is a challenge.

As one who uses the two pronunciations interchangeably I searched out an expert for the answer. Writing in "Herbs for Use and Delight - An Anthology from the Herbarist," published by the Herb Society of America,* John S. Kenyon gives a detailed perspective with a bit of history and etymology thrown in.

"The word herb belongs to a group of words, of which familiar examples may conveniently be considered in three groups:

(1) heir, honest, honor, hour;

(2) herb, homage, humor, hostler, Humphrey;

(3) host, heretic, horrible, hospital, hostel, hotel, human, humane.

"These words differ from all native English words beginning with h in that they were borrowed into English from Old French, and into Old French from popular, spoken Latin. In both popular Latin and Old French none of these words had any h-sound, though when written they often, though not always, continued to be spelt with the letter h


"In ancient classic Latin ... the h had been pronounced, so for English speakers who learned the words orally none heard any h-sound. Literate English people, who could read the words, were unwilling to sound like the lower classes who dropped their h's in all native English words and quite unaware of the history of these French words leaned over backwards and pronounced the h of the spelling in the second group. ... By 'spelling-pronunciation,' most of these French words came to be pronounced in English with the initial h-sound. ... But they did not do a complete job of it in the second group of words (herb, humble, etc.) - the addition of the h-sound was incomplete. so that many cultivated speakers pronounce some words of the second group without the h-sound and others pronounced the same words with an h-sound.

"It was, however, so far carried out that the h-sound was added to the words of the third group in which the h was spelt (host, human, horrible etc.) so that these words now all begin with the h-sound in standard usage.

"In the first group (heir, honest, hour), popular practice has completely stood its ground in refusing to add an h-sound, so that today no cultivated speaker would venture to add an h-sound to these words, though the letter is religiously written.

"The popular idea that words like heir, honest, honor, hour have lost their h-sound is the exact reverse of the fact: they have lost nothing, but have only failed to gain an h-sound in English; while words like host, heretic, hospital, human, etc., popularly supposed to have kept their h-sound, have only gained from the useless spelling with the letter h and h-sound which they originally had not had.

"...Correctness is, and always has been, solely a matter of general agreement in cultivated habits of speaking. ... The pronunciation of the word herb is a clear case of divided cultivated usage. Those who prefer 'erb can rightly feel proud of preserving a well founded tradition; those who prefer an unmistakably well aspirated 'herb' can justly feel that they are at least not old-fashioned."

Now is that clear? Herb or 'erb, it's your choice.

P.S. - In the matter of indefinite articles, "a" is used before a consonant sound (a herb) and "an" is used before a vowel sound (an 'erb.) You'll understand why if you try saying "an herb" - you'll sound like you're hyperventilating.

*Re-issued in the late 1950s in a copyright-free edition published by Dover Publications.

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