Many Spanish words that nowadays begin with h- used to begin with f-, for example:

  • hacer < facere (PT fazer, IT fare, FR faire),
  • hijo < filius (PT filho, IT figlio, FR fils)
  • haya < fagea (PT faia)

Can anyone explain this change?

  • 2
    This is a very complex question, you have a whole article in the Spanish Wikipedia. – Charlie Jan 26 '19 at 12:53
  • @Charlie Thanks, but I don't read intensive Spanish and that page doesn't have an English version so I missed it. – iBug Jan 26 '19 at 13:21
  • 1
    The first tobacco growing and processing in Spain happens in XVI century in Sevilla. This is interesting to know since in Spanish the word for smoke is humo with h while smoking is fumar with f. Probably the bad habit of smoking came to Spain after the process of changing f for h ended. Maybe in it's time fumar was a loanword that came to Spanish with it's original f – enxaneta Jan 26 '19 at 16:20
  • I didn't actually do the right thing and check if there was an answer already, but I don't think the answer I gave is a duplicate. (That one was a "why" answer pointing to substrate influence; mine is more of a "how" answer with more general "why" bullet points.) The question itself is a duplicate, though. What should we do? I can move my answer to the other question, right? – pablodf76 Jan 26 '19 at 18:50

How it exactly happened is unknown. The change itself is not really difficult to imagine. It's a frequent phonetic change in many languages.* One can say it's a kind of lenition (weakening): /f/ involves a well-marked friction between the lips and the teeth, while /h/ is considered by some to be less than a full fricative consonant (more like an approximant).

Why was /f/ prone to change?

  1. Vulgar Latin /f/ was probably not actually labiodental but bilabial [ɸ] (like blowing air out through almost closed lips), so it was rather weak to begin with.
  2. This /f/ was the only fricative in that point of articulation, and the only fricative in the whole system other than /s/, which was much more common; it was phonologically isolated, the odd one out. Such isolation tends to favor the change or disappearance of sounds. On the other hand this also meant that /f/ could sound really like our labiodental [f] or else like bilabial [ɸ], as that would make no difference.
  3. Latin /f/ was also very restricted in its position: for historical reasons it only appeared at the beginning of native Latin roots. (It could appear elsewhere in words like dēfendere, derived from a root fend-, or in borrowings like rūfus.)

All of these made it easy for /f/ to change its pronunciation. In some regions it seems that /f/ was pronounced [h] before posterior vowels (/o/ and /u/) and [ɸ] before the other vowels and consonants like /r/ and /l/. In some others, particularly in northern Castile (where modern standard Spanish comes from), it apparently changed to [h] everywhere. There are traces of this change already in the 9th century. Even then this [h] was disappearing, continuing a process that had already begun in Vulgar Latin.

The only place where /f/ (pronounced [hɸ]) was kept was before [w], that is, in words like fuego (< Latin focum). This would later revert to [f], as well as other words, generally borrowed from Latin or other languages as learned terms (cultismos).

*For a quick reference, check out Index Diachronica; this shows a list of documented instances of /f/ becoming something else in lots of languages (search the page for things like f → h and f → ɸ).

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.