6

AFAIK, the following (possibly wrong!) points seem to summarize the use of the letter h in Italian:

  • In Italian the letter h (commonly known as acca but also known as acca muta) never produces a sound of its own. According to Wikipedia, the letter h used to be pronounced as a slightly aspirated h in most if not all words in Latin (with possible exceptions made for words where the h is both preceded and followed by a vowel), but such pronounciation is lost in modern Italian.

  • Whenever the letter h appears in a medial position within a word which is not a loanword (e.g. some extremely infrequent foreign words from French, German, etc...) it always affects the pronounciation of the letter immediately preceding it which must necessarily be the consonant c (which must appear as part of one the syllables che or chi) or the consonant g (which must appear as part of one the syllables ghe or ghi), with a few exceptions (e.g. I was able to find the words ahó and ohimèin the Treccani online dictionary).

  • Whenever the letter h appears as the first letter of a word, the h does not affect the word's pronounciation. The only possibilities here are loanwords (several of which have been borrowed from English), plus four exceptions, all of which happen to be indicative mood present tense conjugated froms of the verb avere (to be), namely the words: ho (I have), hai (you have), ha (he/she/it has), and hanno (they have). There seem to be no other exceptions in this case.

  • Whenever the letter h appears as the last letter of a word, the h may or may not have an effect on the pronounciation of preceding letter, which in this case must always be a vowel. examples are: ah, òh, beh (alternative spelling of the word be’), boh, and possibly others.

So, what I want to know is:

  1. Is this list correct, or is something still wrong?

  2. If correct, then what is the complete list of possible "exceptions" and "possibly others" as listed above?

Thanks!

  • 2
    Very easy: all of them, even foreign ones, unless you want to use the original pronunciation. – martina Jan 19 '15 at 19:57
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    There are some latin words (which can hardly be classified as "loanwords" imho) still in use that start with "h": "habitat" and "herpes" come to mind. A dictionary probably lists them all in the "h" section. – persson Jan 20 '15 at 9:30
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    Two very common words with a middle "h" are "ahi", used to express sorrow or pain, and "ehi", colloquially used to draw someone's attention in a somewhat casual way. – persson Jan 20 '15 at 10:44
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The list is wrong about pronunciation. The rule is much simpler: you never pronounce the H, it's only used to tell a hard C/G (call, gall) from a soft C/G (choke, joke).

The graphic usage of H in words that are not loanwords is limited to -che-, -chi-, -ghe-, -ghi-, interjections (ehi, ah etc. and short forms used as interjections like toh, beh - also written as to', be') and these words: ho, ha, hai, hanno (verb avere, to avoid confusion with o, a, ai and anno). In all these cases it still has no sound.

  • But I thought the h plays a role in difference between a hard g/c and a soft g/c only when the letters following the h are either e or i (e.g., there couldn't be a word spelled like the English word choke you mention). Are you saying this is wrong? – John Sonderson Jan 20 '15 at 14:24
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    Yes but you cannot have -cha-, -ghu- etc. BTW, I updated the answer because I had misunderstood the question, I though it was only about pronunciation. – Mauro Vanetti Jan 20 '15 at 14:26
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    OK, I made it clearer by specifying -che-, -chi-, -ghe-, -ghi- as the only groups allowed. – Mauro Vanetti Jan 20 '15 at 14:32
  • Maybe you could make clearer the purely graphical nature in ho hai ha hanno with an example such as me l'hai fatta, where it's clear that the h doesn't hinder elision. – egreg Jan 20 '15 at 16:35
3

From the Italian Orthography Wikipedia page (translated):

Grapheme 〈h〉

In Italian 〈h〉 is a so-called "silent" letter, i.e. without a phonological value (although in some cases it may indicate an aspirated sound /h/, similar to the Florentine gorgue), whose main functions are diacritical and/or distinctive.

Today's orthographically regulated uses are:

  1. as a sign in the digraphs ch- and gh- indicating a hard C and G before -e and -i;
  2. as a contrastive sign (of etymological origin from the lat. hăbēre) in the conjugations of the verb to avere:
    • ho, hai, ha and hanno, to distinguish them from:
    • o (conjunction), ai (articulated preposition), a (preposition), anno (noun).
  3. in interjections, especially primary and monosyllabic. In this case there is no strict rule on its positioning, but there seem to be some nuanced customary uses:
    • at the beginning, when it seems to want to suggest an aspirated sound, particularly in laughter: ha ha (/ha ha/), he he (/hɛ hɛ/), etc.
    • after the first vowel in most cases: ah, boh, eh etc. but also ahi, ehi, ohi, etc., and in derivatives, ahimè, ohimè, etc.
    • at the end, to indicate the exclamatory nuance of some grammatical particles: mah, (rare cheh!), substituting the final apostrophe in truncations: beh (be'), toh (to'), etc.

〈h〉 is found in various contexts:

  • in some Italian surnames: Dahò, Dehò, De Bartholomaies, De Thomasis, Matthey, Pamphili, Rahò, Rhodio, Tha, Thei, Theodoli, Thieghi, Thiella, Thiglia, Tholosano, Thomatis, Thorel, Thovez;
  • in some Italian toponyms: Dho, Mathi, Noha, Proh, Rho, Santhià, Tharros, Thiene, Thiesi, Thurio, Vho;
  • in derivatives from foreign words: hockeist, hobby, etc., where usually the initial aspirated sound was lost with the Italianization of the pronunciation and therefore the h also can be omitted in a fully Italianized spelling.
  • in common Latinisms: habitats, herpes, homo, humus, etc. and Latin phrases: ad hoc, ad honorem, horror vacui, etc.

Additional toponyms containing h:


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A Reference Grammar of Modern Italian, Martin Maiden, Cecilia Robustelli (P.5)


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The Popular Educator: A complete Encyclopædia of Elementary, Advanced, and Technical Education. Volume III, Cassell, Petter and Galpin (Lessons in Italian - IV, P.148)

  • 3
    I'd like to know in what cases the h denotes an aspirated sound. The case of ha ha doesn't count, because it should be written ah ah. – egreg Mar 17 '18 at 10:15
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    @egreg The way I understood it, it is referring to the occasional use of h to denote the Tuscan pronunciation of some sentences. E.g. Bevo la hoha hola holla hannuccia horta horta – Denis Nardin Mar 17 '18 at 20:59
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    @DenisNardin: Credo ricordare che nel romanzo Storie di animali e altri viventi di Asor Rosa c'era qualcuno che parlava così. – Charo Mar 20 '18 at 11:20

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