History of Spanish language

Why does the letter “h” exist in Spanish?

The letter “h” is a big headache for many Spanish speakers. When speaking, there is no problem; the difficulty is when writing a letter with no sound and having certainty about when and where to place it. It is such a discreet letter that many have advocated for its elimination, but this queen of imperceptible sounds has triumphantly held a place in the Spanish alphabet. Is it a simple whim? No. In grammar, everything generally has an explanation.

The letter h is the eighth letter in the Spanish alphabet. It is pronounced only when preceded by the letter c, forming the sound “ch”. The problem is that more than 2,000 words begin with the letter h in Spanish and a few more have this letter interspersed. But then, if it doesn’t sound, why do we write it? Why write something that doesn’t exist? One of the reasons is that it was not always mute.

The origins of the “h”

Let’s go back to its past: the Phoenicians were the first to use this letter and pronounced it as an aspirated “j”. The Phoenicians passed it to the Greeks, who adopted it with a gentle aspiration. Then, it passed into Latin, from Greek, and the sound became even softer.

 From Latin, it made its jump to Spanish, where at first it was also pronounced as an aspirated sound, accompanied by a small explosion of air similar to the current pronunciation of the aspirated “h” in English. But Spanish not only used Latin words that began with “h”, but it also appropriated numerous Latin words that began with “f”. At first, these words also began with “f” in Spanish, but as the years went by and since, in some parts of Spain, the “f” sound was also pronounced with an aspiration, in the 14th century, the “f” initial began to be replaced by the initial “h”. This is what happened with farina, which became harina (flour), the verb hacer (to do), which in its beginnings was facer, helecho (fern)(which during the Middle Ages was felecho), humo (smoke), which was fumo, hola (hello), which derives from fola and many other words. This change also affected some words that had the f interspersed, such as the case of búho (owl), which comes from bufo in Latin.

According to the RAE records, until the mid-16th century, the letter h in Spanish was still pronounced with an aspiration, especially in words initially written with f in Latin.

Starting in the 15th century, the trend changed, and the aspirated h began to be considered a vulgarism typical of the lower classes, so little by little, the h began to be silenced entirely until it became the silent letter that it is today.

H: the only letter that is not a sound but is equally necessary

One more historical fact explains the existence of this letter: in the past, both the letters u and v were written precisely the same, although they were not pronounced in the same way. Therefore, to identify that the corresponding sound was that of the vowel “u” and not that of the consonant “v”, an h was placed before it. In this way, it was known that huevo (egg) should be pronounced as “uevo” and not as “vevo” as it would have been without the h in front.

Furthermore, the letter h in Spanish differentiates homophonous words in writing. Those that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. Thus, we can quickly differentiate writing hola (hello) from ola (wave), hojear (leaf through) from ojear (to browse), hecho (fact) from echo (he/she drop) or differentiate the preposition a (to) by ha from the verb hacer (to do).

As you have seen, “H” is a silent letter with a great history that still fulfils essential functions in Spanish. The discreet queen can only be used correctly if you practice reading and writing a lot. The mere fact of being the only letter in Spanish that holds the title of having no sound makes it very special. After knowing its story, I hope you are encouraged to correct your spelling and remember your “Hs” here or there.

And remember that if you still need help with Spanish grammar, iScribo is always here to help you improve!

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