herb; /hw/

Beverly Flanigan flanigan at OAK.CATS.OHIOU.EDU
Tue Jan 30 22:57:16 UTC 2001

At 03:38 PM 1/30/01 -0500, you wrote:
>Here in Schenectady New York, I've heard a few people saying "herb" with
>the "h;" it seems to be a half-educated spelling pronunciation. The
>majority of people say "erb." Most well-educated people here say "erb;"
>some people seem to be conscious that saying /h3Rb/ is "wrong," and
>correct people who say it. Apparently the high-priced garden club
>influence hasn't helped disseminate the "h" pronunciation here. I can
>remember, as a child, that I said "erb" before I learned to read. Around
>age six or seven, I started to sound the "h;" I had seen it in writing
>and I thought that it was more correct to say the "h." But then my mom
>corrected me, and I went back to "erb."
>As for the /hw/ cluster, in Schenectady and Utica NY, and in New York
>City, as far as I can tell, everyone of all ages uses a plain /w/ in all
>styles of speech. Most people aren't even conscious that it's possible to
>say these words with /hw/, and many people can't hear the difference.
>Further north, in the Adirondacks, there's some generational
>differences--older people say /hw/, younger ones say /w/. I've noticed
>that ex-President Clinton usually sounds the /h/ in these words. However,
>with "what," he often just uses /w/. Hillary just uses /w/, as do (or
>did) all of the Kennedys. Most Californians I've talked to or heard talk
>also use a plain /w/; almost all of the younger ones do. I can't really
>speak for northern California, though; almost all of the Californians
>I've listened to are from southern California.

I want to make clear that the /h/ pronunciation for 'herb' that I hear in
southern Ohio is not an issue of educated vs. uneducated people, or even of
pseudo-sophisticated (the Martha Stewart type) vs. not hip.    This is
basically a regional feature, and while it may be disappearing, it can
still be mapped, I think.  I'm also not surprised that older people in the
Adirondacks still have /hw/, as do some yet in these Appalachian
foothills.  Clinton's 50-something generation (in the Ozark extension of
the mountains) has lost it but inconsistently (a student just reminded me
that Dan Rather, 65-ish, has /hw/ pretty consistently, so much so that he
once generalized it to speak of Diana, Princess of /hwelz/).  Hillary, as a
Chicagoan, never had it; nor do New Englanders or those in the vast general

Beverly Olson Flanigan         Department of Linguistics
Ohio University                     Athens, OH  45701
Ph.: (740) 593-4568              Fax: (740) 593-2967

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