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H aspiré: What is the aspirated h in French?

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Aspirated h?

The aspirated h, or h aspiré in French, is an h that’s positioned right at the beginning of a word that prevents liaison with the consonant that precedes it. The aspirated h stands in contrast to the humble h muet, which is an ordinary h that allows for liaison between words to happen.

Remember that in French, the letter h is always silent. There is one exception to that rule, though: if it’s part of an initialism (an acronym that can’t be pronounced as a single word, like CIA), you’ll have to spell out the letters one by one. In that case, you pronounce h as [aʃ].

How do I know which French words start with an aspirated h?

Paper-based dictionaries usually indicate the aspirated h (and thus the lack of liaison) with an asterisk placed before the word. The good news is that good-quality dictionaries will always indicate an aspirated h.

Now for the bad news: most online dictionaries don’t mark these words consistently enough to be dependable, even if they do indicate the h aspiré here and there. That can be misleading, because it gives you the idea that only the words designated as such belong in this category.

The best way of circumventing this problem is actually thinking (and studying) ahead. If you learn the most common words, you won’t have to keep checking whether a new word starting with an h likes to get liaised or not.

In addition to that, keep an eye out for definite articles (la, le) written out in full before nouns starting with an h. If you find one, you can be sure it sports an aspirated h.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if a word stems from the same root as one pronounced with an aspirated h, that one’s going to be aspirated, too. (You should check both spelling and meaning to make sure that’s the case. A good example for this would be la hauteur, la hausse, hausser, and haut/haute.) I would recommend keeping a list of these words and adding each new finding to it as you go.

I’ve found that Wiktionnaire (the French version of Wiktionary) is the most dependable online dictionary when it comes to correct indication of the aspirated h. If a word starts with an h, it’s always indicated whether it’s an h aspiré or an h muet. I would recommend checking words against it if you have a hunch they might start with an aspirated h.

Wiktionnaire entry for hérisson.

To quote an old adage: Keep your friends close and your French dictionary closer.

How should I learn French words starting with an aspirated h?

Most French words start with a run-of-the-mill h muet, but you’ll have to look out for those that don’t. How you do that matters.

You might feel the urge to plunge headlong into studying an exhaustive list of words – “I’ll never fall prey to an insidious aspirated h ever again!” – in order to avoid making a superfluous liaison. (The French version of Wikipedia has one such list right here. Feel free to check it out, but maybe don’t.)

This is just the opposite of what you should be doing, and this is why: there are dozens and dozens of words starting with an aspirated h that you’ll never ever (ever) use in French. The French language is varied and beautifully rich, made up of over 90000 existing words in total – and of course, only roughly a third of that is in common use today.

There’s bound to be a good deal of words starting with an aspirated h that you won’t really come across (let alone use), either because it’s a technical word or because it has fallen out of common usage over time. You probably won’t want to learn those unless you find the process fun. We would fully and truly understand if you did, though.

That takes us to the following important question:

Can I predict anything from the first few letters of a word?

You might, but the exceptions are so numerous that they render this method hard to trust. For example, most words starting with “hu-“, “ho-“, “ha-“, and “hai-” sport an aspirated h, but many don’t. Knowing this might come in handy when you have to make an educated guess, but it’s far from being a perfect method.

I would recommend memorizing the most important words that start with an aspirated h, so you won’t have to look things up too often. Each time you come across a new word, the best practice would be to check it in a dictionary. As mentioned above, the French version of Wiktionary is probably the best resource for doing this.

That being said, we don’t live in a perfect world. If you don’t have the time or opportunity to check your specific word in the dictionary, feel free to use this technique to better your chances of getting it right.

Which are the words starting with an aspirated h that are actually important to know?

That will depend on your current level of language proficiency. If you’re just starting out with French, knowing 15-20 such words will suffice for a while. If you’re getting fluent, it’s worth memorizing an extra 30-50 so that you’ll never make the mistake of mispronouncing (mis-liaisoning?) a word with an aspirated h.

Luckily, Frenchanted has created an awesome list of French words starting with an aspirated h. We sorted these into different categories based on word frequency, so you can start learning them according to your level of fluency right now. You won’t have to spend a minute wondering which ones to learn!

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