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What's the function of the letter h in Spanish? Even though it's not pronounced there must be a reason of its existence.

Update:

What I mean is the case when the letter h it's not accompanied by the c (ch).

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Related: Latin /f/ to Spanish /h/ –  jrdioko Dec 23 '11 at 23:07

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The silent, leading h exists for etymological reasons. As Vulgar Latin developed into Castilian, many (but not all) *f*s at the beginnings of words began to be pronounced as, and spelled with, h. Eventually, the sound represented by h was lost, but it remained in the spelling of words.

There are many examples of words in Spanish that start with h whose cognates in other languages start with f. For example, with English we have the pair halcón and falcon; with Latin, hacer and facere; with French, hierro and fer; with Portuguese, hablar and falar.

Also interesting: the names Hernán and Fernando are cognate (if two words in the same language can be thus described). Indeed, some contemporary sources refer to a chap named Fernando Cortés.

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'H' keeps because of etymology of words, or the diphthongization of the vowel or when it receives the accent.

In times is pronounced, ie: chacha is not the same as caca

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Note that until the last decade, "h" was not considered a letter of the Spanish alphabet in such cases because "ch" was a letter. –  hippietrail Dec 20 '11 at 18:33
    
Another example: "has" (verb haber) is not the same than "as" (ace) –  dusan Dec 21 '11 at 0:42

H does have a sound when forms part of the digraph ch, for example:

  1. Chicharrón
  2. Muchacho/a
  3. Chantaje

Wikipedia lists one exception to the above rule: Hámster (which comes from the German). More examples are: Hall (pronounced Jol in Spanish), Hardware, Hobby, etc.

On these cases H is pronounced as you would pronounce an H in English or a J in Spanish.

Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Se corresponde con la letra H del alfabeto romano, procedente de la eta griega, que proviene de la het fenicia. Su nombre en español, hache, viene probablemente del latín rústico *haca, a través del francés hache.

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Note that English H and Spanish J are not pronounced the same at all, though if you are a native speaker of one and a beginner in the other you'll be understood by pronouncing them the same until you learn the other sound. H is [h], the voiceless glottal fricative. J is [x], the voiceless velar fricative. –  hippietrail Dec 20 '11 at 18:31

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