Well for once I’ve got relatively little to say about the pronunciation of a Spanish letter, and this is because the letter H in Spanish is silent. This is why our greeting “hola” sounds just like “ola” and the well known verb to speak “hablar” likewise sounds like “ablar”.
This statement on my part is usually followed by the question – so why have an “H” at all then? There is an answer to this, but it’s all to do with the history and development of words from Latin and other languages. The answer I prefer to give is that, if you think the silent H in Spanish is a problem, what about all those silent letters in English (lamb, debt, half, light, psychology) which don’t seem to follow any particular rule at all! Also, isn’t it odd that in English sometimes we pronounce the H and sometimes we don’t, as in “hour”, but “how”. Our class system even comes into this a bit, as ‘posher’ people would say “otel” while the rest of us say “hotel”. English is a strange language.
So meanwhile back at the Spanish language, if the H is always silent, this applies in the middle of words as well as at the end. A favourite word is alcohol which therefore sounds like “alcol”, and that wonderful word for carrot that everyone struggles with “zanahoria”, which sounds like “zanaoria” (with the main beat of the word on the “o”).
The letter “H” does perform one other function where pronunciation is concerned, which is to combine with the letter “c”, thus making a “ch” sound identical to English “ch” as in “church”. Most of us find it easy to pronounce “leche” (milk) or “techo” (ceiling). For some reason, English speaking people tend to make the mistake of softening the “ch” to a “sh” sound in words that remind us of French, like “ducha” (shower) and “chalet” (detached house). Don’t be tempted to do this because “ducha” and “chalet” are pronounced with the same “ch” as “leche”.
As ever, there are plenty of “true friend” type words, that is ones that look similar and mean the same in both languages. Here is a small selection: historia which means “history” and also “story”. (This incidentally explains why some Spanish people speaking English make the mistake of saying “I will tell you the history” when they mean “the story”) helicóptero (helicopter), horrible (horrible), humedad (humidity or damp) honor (honour), humano (human), humildad (humility), huracán (hurricane).
Here’s a rather curious “false friend”, the Spanish word hipo looks as though it means “hippo”, but in fact means “hiccups”, whilst the animal hipopótamo can’t be abbreviated as it can in English. So now you can apologise for those occasional noises you make with “Perdón, tengo hipo” “Excuse me, I have hiccups” (and not, “I have a hippopotamus”).
An interesting little word imported from English that has become part of Spanish culture is with word “hippy”, with the “H” sounded in imitation of the English pronunciation. Nowadays in Spain “los hippys” are the people who wear colourful clothes, sell jewellery on market stalls and listen to folk music, no doubt whilst smoking a joint. Not that I’m prone to stereotyping or anything.
One of the commonest verbs in Spanish begins with the letter “H” and that is “hacer” meaning “to make” or “to do”. This has many uses. We find it in straightforward phrases like “hacer las camas” (to make the beds) and “hacer los deberes” (to do ones homework). When we want to know what someone is doing we can ask “¿Qué estás haciendo?”, or simply “¿Qué haces?” We use the verb “hacer” to talk about the weather: “Hace frío” (it’s cold), “hace calor” (it’s hot), “hace fresco” (it’s chilly) “hace viento” (it’s windy). Other things we can make or do – “hacer ruido” (to make a noise) “hacer daño” (to damage, to hurt). To do well is “hacer bien”, sometimes people express agreement with the action of another by saying “haces bien” – “you do right”. Another typical use of “hace” is the equivalent of “ago”, except it is put in front of the time expression instead of after it: “hace una semana” (a week ago) “hace muchos años” (many years ago). A form “hacer” is “hecho” which means “made” or “done”. When an agreement has been reached the people concerned might say “hecho” which would mean something like “it’s a done deal” (if you’ll excuse the Americanism!)
This leads us to this week’s saying involving the letter “H”. It is “A lo hecho, pecho”. This cannot really be translated literally as it would come out as something like “To what is done, chest, or heart”. The nearest saying in English with a similar meaning is: “What’s done is done”, but what it really means is that we should accept and stand by the consequences of our actions.
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel: 968 18 32 58