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French Pronunciation: What are the rules for h- liaison?

In French, you don’t generally pronounce final consonants of words, with the exception of these four, which are often – but not always – pronounced in final position: c, r, f, l (as in the words “lac”, “par”, “œuf”, and “hôtel”). As for the other consonants, these remain unpronounced in their final position, with their preceding vowel sounds pronounced instead – for example, we would not pronounce the “s” in the word “mais” or the final “t” in the word “appartement”, instead ending these words with the open e, /ɛ/, and nasal a, /ɑ̃/, sounds.

There is, however, a time when we do pronounce the final letters of these words and that is when they are followed by a word beginning with a vowel, as in the sentence “Quelle heure est-il?”, the “t” being pronounced when followed by the vowel sound /i/. This is called liaison, the attachment of the final consonant of a word to a word that that follows it in a phrase, when this second word begins with a vowel.

But what happens when a word ending in a consonant is followed by a word beginning with h? We don’t pronounce the h in French, and these initial h’s are often followed by vowels. Do we approach this phonetically and make the liaison? Or do we look at the consonant h that is graphically present in the word and not make the liaison? The answer is ... both. But you have to be familiar with the behavior of h’s in different words. This is one of the reasons why people find French pronunciation intimidating. 😁

Words beginning with the letter h in French are either h muet or h aspiré. We don’t pronounce either of these h’s in modern French (although the “h aspiré” did reflect a glottal stop in earlier forms of the French language), but they do act differently within sentences.

So if you’re looking for a place to stay when visiting a city and browsing a brochure for hotels, you would say “Regardons ces hôtels”, pronouncing the “s” at the end of “ces” as /z/, since the h in “hôtel” is an h muet. In the same vein, when speaking of accommodation, you would elide the definite article “le” with “hébergement”, which would become “l’hébergement”. Since the h is an “h muet”, you approach the first syllable of this word as you would a word beginning with a vowel.

But if you are ordering hamburgers at a restaurant, you would say “les hamburgers” without pronouncing the s at the end of “les”, thus not making a liaison. This holds true for other words, such “la hanche”, “le hibou”, and “les héros”. In the third example, as with “les hamburgers” you would not make the liaison between “les” and “héros” - you certainly would not want to refer to heroes as zeroes, which is what would happen if you were to make the liaison! The other words, as we see graphically, also do not elide the way the words having an “h muet” do. The h aspiré requires speakers to pronounce one vowel sound directly after another, e.g. “le hamburger”, moving directly from a schwa to a nasal a sound, and this stands in contrast to the enchaînement that is characteristic of the French language, which is distinguished by the alternation between vowel and consonant sounds.

We can also contrast the denasalization that occurs with liaison when an “h muet” follows a nasal vowel with the nasalized vowel sounds that remain when these sounds are followed by words beginning with an “h aspiré”:

  • h muet: Chris Pine est un homme qui joue le rôle de Steve Trevor dans le film Wonder Woman.

  • h aspiré: Mr. Owl est un hibou qui mange un bonbon.

The indefinite article “un”, pronounced by itself, has the nasal sound /œ̃/ (a nasal vowel sound involves air being pushed out of the nasal passages). This nasal sound is maintained in the second phrase, before the “h aspiré” of the word “hibou”, since there is no liaison, but denasalized before the “h muet” of “homme” in the first phrase, since we treat the “n” as a consonant between two vowel sounds, which does not produce a nasal sound.

How do we know if an h is aspirated or not? It mainly takes memorization, which is assisted by hearing and repeating these words often. If you have a dictionary handy, there will be an asterisk [*] preceding words beginning with an aspirated h. A detailed dictionary will specify the origins of these words which, in the case of words beginning with an h muet, tend to have Greek and Latin origins, whereas words beginning with an h aspiré tend to have Germanic origins, or be borrowed from other languages. Compare the following:

h muet h aspiré
l’hypoténuse la halte
l’héctare le hamburger
l’hiver le hussard
l’harmonie Les Halles

So if the “h” is neither pronounced in words beginning with an “h aspiré” nor an “h muet”, and we’ve dropped the glottal stops of the “h aspiré” in modern French, why include the “h” in the spelling of words having an “h muet”? Doesn’t that just make it confusing? Actually, the h’s of words of Latin origin beginning with an “h muet” were dropped graphically in Old French, as pronunciation changed from the Latin, e.g. “hora” becoming “ore” or “eure”. These h’s were subsequently reintroduced into French during the Renaissance, e.g., “heure” during a revival of interest in texts of Antiquity.

Sometimes words with different histories have graphic similarities. Think of the way h’s are used in English by comparing the word “honest” with “house” and then by comparing the different pronunciations of “herb” within the anglophone world. As with the words we’ve studied which begin with the letter h in French, one has Germanic origins, one has Latin origins (via French), and one has a restored h that remained mute through the 18th century, and still is for many English speakers.

Aside from memorizing which h’s are aspirated, and thus do not participate in liaison, we can remember that most words in French beginning with ha- have an “h aspiré” (“la hâte”, “le haut”, “les hamsters”) as do many words beginning with ho- (“la Hollande”, “le homard”, “les hoquets”), although it is important to be aware of frequently used words beginning with ho- that have an “h muet”, such as the examples of “l’hôtel” and “l’homme”, given above. These examples again are related to their Latin origins (“hospes”, “homo”) which, as we’ve observed, transformed phonetically into words having an “h muet”.

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French Pronunciation: What are the rules for h- liaison?
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