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Why do the ho, hai, ha, hanno forms of the present tense conjugation of avere begin with 'h'?

In researching the issue, I have seen that many think that the 'h' is employed to differentiate from the other words one could confuse: o (conjunction, "or"), ai (a + i articulated preposition, "to the"), a (preposition, "to"), and anno (noun "year").

I had assumed that the 'h' was not purposefully designed into the language for the sake of alleviating confusion, but rather because it was a part of how habere morphed into avere from Latin to Italian: habeo became ho, habes became hai, etc.

Can anyone expand upon these theories?

  • I would also appreciate some clarity on this. As a student of Italian, this has always bugged me greatly. When I first started, I was deliberately pronouncing the 'h' as a way to differentiate it from "o", "ai", "a", etc. before my tutor told me that was wrong. But if the h is only written, it doesn't differentiate it from its counterparts when spoken -- "hai" sounds the same as "ai". And the "h gets added to differentiate it" always seemed like a lackluster excuse, for that reason (if it's contextual, then why is it written at all?). – Marco Aug 25 '17 at 15:03
  • @Marco: The "h" is not pronounced because it's not in ecclesiastical Latin, as opposed to classical Latin. This page clearly shows how Italian is more similar to the former. – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 25 '17 at 17:16
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    @VincenzoOliva: Interesting... Italian and ecclesiastical Latin have several similarities, but are we sure that Italian pronunciation is as it is because of ecclesiastical Latin? Wouldn't it be more likely that both followed a parallel trajectory away from classical Latin? After all, strong as the influence of Church was on Italian society, Italians didn't learn their mother tongue from Latin masses. – DaG Aug 25 '17 at 18:18
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    @DaG: I agree with your last statement, but in fact ecclesiastical Latin was born during the Late Roman Empire, and essentially has the Late Vulgar pronunciation - well, the one spoken in Rome and presumably the rest of Italy between the 2nd and the 3rd century. So yeah, it's more correct to say that the two pronunciations agree because they both stem from the Vulgar Latin spoken in Italy, but since e. Latin is chronologically closer to it, I think it still makes sense to look at e. Latin as a predecessor of Italian. – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 26 '17 at 7:19
  • In other words, not strictly "because of e. Latin", but how this is pronounced inevitably indicates Italian pronunciation. – Vincenzo Oliva Aug 26 '17 at 7:20
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The H in some forms of avere does come from Latin. There was a debate a few centuries ago between those who wanted to keep all H's and those who wanted to get rid of all of them.

A compromise solution was eventually found, sanctioned by the approval of the Accademia della Crusca (the highest authority on Italian language): the H's were to be dropped except those that could be useful to tell homophones apart.

Check here: http://dizionari.corriere.it/dizionario-si-dice/H/h.shtml

Apparently, there was a disambiguation obsessions among Italian linguists and writers. Its rationale is quite weak, because countless ambiguities exist in any case, nevertheless it created a set of bizarre orthographic rules. Recently, the relevance of such arguments is considered more questionable but some rules are already congealed in everyday usage and cannot fall.

Just to be crystal clear: those H's are not pronounced - and as a result this is arguably the most frequent mistake native Italian speakers make in writing.

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