My H problem

I haven’t posted since August. I spent most of September traveling, and since coming home I’ve been busy with other things.

A part of my travels was in Poland, the land of my birth. My previous visit there was in 1997, and before that I hadn’t been back in over fifty years — since 1944, when I left at the age of nine.

After six years in Germany, my parents and I ended up in Los Angeles in 1950, and soon thereafter they asked me to speak English with them. I already knew the language, and they wanted to learn it. As Polish Jews who survived World War II, we had no great attachment to Poland or the Polish language, and so the change came easy. (I continued occasionally to speak Yiddish with my father.)

On my first return trip to Poland I was surprised at how quickly my fluency in Polish came back. Polish grammar is notoriously difficult, but even without knowing the rules very well I somehow managed to navigate its treacherous waters. Since then I’ve tried to speak a little Polish on occasion, and to learn it a little better by consulting textbooks, teaching aids and books about the language. On my last trip I spoke it well enough to be taken for a Pole.

But in the process of reading about Polish I discovered something strange: according to all the authorities, in Polish the letter H and the digraph CH are pronounced alike, as the voiceless velar fricative /x/ (more or less the way most continental Hispano-Americans — Argentines, Mexicans, Peruvians — pronounce J).

This is not at all how I remember learning the language. In my speech (and my mother’s — she still speaks Polish, and I often overhear her), the sound of H is what it is in English (as in hotel), and that of CH what it is in German in such words as Loch or lachen. Actually, I modeled my pronunciation in these languages (and in others, such as Hebrew and Spanish), as I learned them, on the way I used the sounds in Polish.

When I have listened to Polish-speakers, it has always seemed to be that, with some striking exceptions, their pronunciation of H and CH has been the same as mine. I am now wondering if making the distinction between H and CH is a peculiarity of Polish-speaking Jews, and perhaps a holdover from Yiddish.

Thinking about this problem led me to reflecting about the many roles that the letter H, by itself and in digraphs, plays in the various Roman alphabets, and I turned the reflections into an essay.

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4 Responses to “My H problem”

  1. Kubica Says:

    Dear Sir, you are right about the distinction between h and ch in Polish. I am of a very young age – but I do retain this, in my opinion, very important feature of the Polish language pronunciation. It is generally believed that people of old date still speak that ‘weird’ Polish. Mostly h and ch are now the same.

  2. Anthony Argyriou Says:

    Your essay is fascinating.

    However, the web page has an open “title” tag, with no closing, which causes it to fail to render in my browsers. (Opera 9.64 and IE 6.0.29 on Windows XP)

  3. Nicolasa Noftsier Says:

    great submit, very informative. I ponder why the opposite experts of this sector do not understand this. You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  4. Shon Hanle Says:

    J’ai finalement trouv� cette page web! J’ai regard� juste pour cet article pour si longtemps! Superbe!

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