28: The /h/ (as in 'hello' and 'happy')

Learn to correctly pronounce /h/ in English, not too hard, not too soft.


Hi again everyone! This is Mandy with Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation podcast. This is episode 28. Today we're marking a grand occasion: today I will introduce the last sound of English pronunciation, the h sound. The h sound doesn't always get much attention, but it should.

After today, I'll begin going into more detail about specific sounds and refer back to these earlier podcasts for general information about sounds and their categories. I will also spend some time talking about syllable stress. Eventually I'll get into intonation, which I know everyone wants to know more about.

We did talk a little about the h sound way back in episode 16, when I talked about reduced pronouns. If you haven't heard that show yet, it would be a good one to go back and listen to.

The h sound is a fricative, so it's in the same category as the th sounds, the sh sound, zh sound, f sound, v sound, s sound and z sound. All of those sounds have voiced and unvoiced pairs. The h sound is different because it doesn't have a voiced counterpart.

The h sound can be pretty hard to hear through microphones, and I'm surprised how often it sounds like a speaker doesn't use the h sound when I listen to the radio. I'm pretty certain that those native speakers are actually saying the sound, but the filters on the microphone block it because it is such a small and quiet sound.

So, I will try to make the sound so my microphone will pick it up, yet not over-exaggerate the sound and distort it. Here it is: h sound (h sound).

That sound comes from way down in my throat. I'm restricting the space in my throat just a little bit while pushing the air out. Listen again: h sound (h sound).

I hear three errors with this sound. The first error is using too much friction. I'm going to attempt to create a sound like I hear from some non-native speakers. (incorrect h sound) You should not actually be able to feel this sound very much.

The second error I hear, and native French speakers are well known for this, is to not say the h sound at all. If you've already listened to episode 16 about reduced pronouns, you may remember that this is okay with certain words. However, when you omit the h sound from the words him, her, and he, you need to link it with the word before it, or it will just sound weird. Unless it is one of those words, or a word that you know begins with a silent h, you should say the h sound. If you don't, people will still probably understand you, but it increases the perception of your foreign accent. Once enough small issues like these pile up, people end up asking you to repeat yourself.

And the third error I hear with the h sound is simply not knowing when the h is silent at the beginning of a word. The silent h sound is the exception, and not the rule. Words that begin with a silent h must be memorized. Here are a few honor, h-o-n-o-r, honest h-o-n-e-s-t, heir h-e-i-r (which sounds identical to air a-i-r). In the word herb, spelled h-e-r-b, native English speakers from the United States don't say the h sound, but I believe people from Britain do say the sound. Another crazy thing about h-e-r-b, if it's a name, usually short for Herbert, we do say the h sound. So, Herb is a name, and an herb is a plant.

I promise I will do an episode just about unusual silent letters sometime, hopefully soon.

For a little practice with the h sound, here are some minimal pairs between words that begin with the h sound and words that are the same, except there is no h sound at the beginning. This will make sense once you hear a few. Repeat after me, if you can. The first word will have the h sound, the second word will not.


hear, ear
heat, eat
his, is
hitch, itch
hold, old


So there's the h sound. Most of the difficulties around this sound come from students not knowing when to say the sound or not. Do be careful, however, that you are not creating too much friction for this sound. The amount of friction is really light. Listen to the sound one more time: h sound (h sound).

As always the transcripts for this show can be found online at www.pronuncian.com. I'll also link to the free h sound practice and the other shows I mentioned during this show along with this week's transcripts.

If you want to practice the h sound in one long mp3 format list, you can buy the whole set of every sound of English, spoken with an American accent, for just $10US and download it immediately. You can also buy the ebook, Pronunciation Pages: Sounds of American Accent for $25 US, or the ebook and MP3 download for just $30US. You do not need to be in the United States to buy any of those products. All the money from those purchases goes directly to producing these shows and for programming Pronuncian.com.

Next week I'm going to go into detail about the short i and long e sounds. I hear nearly every single one of my students, no matter what their first language is, say the short i sound incorrectly. Usually, I hear these people saying the long e sound in its place. So I'm going to go into more detail about how these sounds are different so you can begin to break your habits with those sounds. I'll also help you to not accidentally swear due to mispronunciation of these sounds.

I'm hoping that the following week I can begin talking about the somewhat complicated subject of syllable stress.

That's all for today folks. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.