Will Soares

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The curious case of the letter H in English perceived by Portuguese speakers

August 13, 2023 5 min read

It's been a while since I first thought about writing a post on the topic of linguistics. A few times in the past year I noticed several things in conversations or readings that could have become an interesting topic for a post in that area. I am finally getting down to it and hoping this will be the first in a series of writings on the topic.

I thought I would start this with a disclaimer: I am no specialist when it comes to linguistics, I have no degrees or any sort of certificates in the area.

In that sense, I wanted to apologize in advance to any linguists reading this post if I end up saying something technically absurd. Of course, I did undertake research before writing this and will provide sources whenever relevant, but still, something might go unnoticed.

The topic has been catching my attention more and more often as I explore and play with different languages either in my travels or when meeting people from various countries. The latest and most curious one at the moment for me is something that has been the topic of conversations with friends and coworkers here in Portugal recently: the pronunciation (or lack of pronunciation) of the letter H by Portuguese and Brazilians when speaking English.

As a Brazilian living in Portugal, it's impossible not to notice the various things that differ between the Brazilian and European Portuguese. For this post, I decided to write something interesting I noticed after interacting with the Portuguese in contexts where English was the language being used, such as at work or gatherings with people from other non-Portuguese-speaking countries.

Before deep diving into this, it's important to quickly go over what happens with the letter H in Portuguese, for those who don't speak Portuguese or for any other reason are not aware of this, so that we can have a common ground.

In Portuguese, as well as in some other languages, the letter H in the majority of cases like at the beginning of words is not pronounced and does not help create any phoneme. So words like "hora" (hour), "herói" (hero), and "hino" (hymn) are pronounced as if they were written like "ora", "erói", and "ino", respectively. If you check the phonetic notation for "hora", for instance, you'll have /ˈɔɾɐ/ which does not show a phonetic representation for H.

In other languages, like English, that can happen in a case-by-case rule. If we look again at the words used as examples above we notice that from those three English words, there is one where the letter H is also not pronounced: hour. The phonetic transcription for that in American English would be /ˈaʊɚ/.

The interesting case that I wanted to share in this post is that European Portuguese speakers when speaking English tend to not pronounce the H in words where that letter actually should represent a phoneme. So if we go back again and take another word as an example from the words mentioned above, we can notice that in "hero" the letter H represents a phoneme, which in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is represented by the voiceless glottal fricative . So the IPA transcription for the American English version of "hero" would be /ˈhiɹ.oʊ/.

In contrast to that, there's the fact that Brazilian Portuguese speakers when speaking English tend to always pronounce that H whenever it should in fact be pronounced. The lack of pronunciation of the letter H in words like "hero" is something I've never observed in Brazilians speaking English, while when the Portuguese speak English, that is something I have noticed more often than not, and apparently it is not linked to the level of English. As a matter of fact, the Portuguese have a pretty good level of English skills, and I have even improved my English skills a bit after moving to Portugal and having to use English at work, for instance.

The question now is: why is there a difference in the way Brazilians and Portuguese pronounce such words when speaking English?

After some investigation and chatting with friends, I've come across this interesting fact: that voiceless glottal fricative mentioned above is not really present in European Portuguese, as it is in Brazilian Portuguese.

In many parts of Brazil, when pronouncing words like "carro" (car), "rede" (network), and "rato" (rat) people tend to use the voiceless glottal fricative to represent the sound of the "r" and "rr" in those words, which is the same sound used for the H in the word "hero", for instance. The phonetic transcription of those words in Brazilian Portuguese would be /ˈkahu/, /ˈhɛdʒi/, and /ˈhatu/, respectively.

With that in mind, we understand that the sound for the letter H in English words like "hero" is pretty common in Brazilian Portuguese words, whereas in European Portuguese it is not. In the word "rato" for instance the phonetic transcription in European Portuguese would be /ˈʁatu/. The voiced uvular fricative <ʁ> in there is far from the sound for the letter H in "hero", for instance, and rather equal to the sound of R in French, like in "regarde" (IPA /ʁəɡaʁd/).

That said, it seems like when Brazilians speak English it is easy enough to apply the sound for the letter H when needed, considering is such a common phoneme for us. For the Portuguese, since that sound (apparently) does not exist, they tend to just "skip" the letter H and pronounce things like "onda", "ook", and "OpenEimer" when refering to the words "Honda", "hook", and "Oppenheimer", respectively.

It's fair to say that in this scenario, the way we are used to pronounce words in our native language have an important impact on how we perceive other languages and the habits we create when communicating in other languages. To me that's one of the most beautiful things on this topic, the plethora of outcomes you can have when you combine various dialects and accents. Sometimes a deep dive like this (in reality it wasn't that deep) can give us many insights on how a language works and how it has evolved.

Hope you enjoyed the reading, til the next one!

Ps: kudos to everyone that I shared this with and helped with questions, especially João Oliveira and Bogdan Yakovenko.

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