(Adapted and translated from an article in Corriere della Sera.)
In French, there is “heure” and in English there is “hour” and “heir.” In these cases, the “h” is silent. There are many words in English, like “help” and “horse,” where the “h” is aspirated. But in Italian the “h” is always mute: Ho un cane; hai un gatto; chi è qui? It is written but not read, it is seen but not heard.
The history of the Italian “H” is as old as the alphabet, which was invented by the Phoenicians. The earliest known inscriptions date back to 1000 B.C. The “het” was the eighth letter of the Phoenician alphabet and was written as a sign in the form of a rectangle with a hyphen or dash in the middle (called a closed “h”). It corresponded to a sound that was produced by a narrowing of the oral cavity at the height of the pharynx.
Beginning in the ninth century B.C., Lebanese traders had more and more contacts with the Greeks, who were aware of the Phoenicians’ extraordinary technological inventions of the time, from glass to the alphabet. The adoption of the alphabet was a complex process because ancient Greek was an Indo-European language with different sounds than the Phoenician, which was a Semitic language. In Greek, many words began with aspirated vowels. These words were transcribed with the sign “het” in front to indicate the aspiration.
Around the end of the seventh century B.C., there was a simplification of the ancient “het” sign: The top and bottom lines of the rectangle were omitted, and the letter took on the form of the “H” that we know today. Thus, gradually, the closed H became an open H.
In ancient Greece, many dialects existed. In Mileto and in Asia Minor corresponding to the central coast of Turkey, the Greeks spoke a dialect without the aspiration. They used the Phoenician “het” symbol to indicate the long “e” sound. In 403 A.C. the city of Athens issued an official decree adopting the alphabet of Mileto. And so the sign in the form of an “H” was used almost everywhere in the Greek world as a symbol for the letter “e,” that is the long “e” to indicate the aspirated sound.
The sign of the H had a different fate in the Greek colonies in Campania. The first on mainland Italy was in Cuma (now an archaeological site in Naples), which was founded by Greeks from the island of Eubea in the 8th century. In the alphabet of the Cumians, the sign continued to indicate the sound of the aspirated “H,” and so passed on also to the Romans who adopted the symbol in its open variant to indicate the sound of aspiration at the beginning of many Latin words (eg, homo for uomo, habere for avere) from which the “h” survives still in Italian – even if mute – in some of the voices of the verb avere today.
How did the aspirated Latin H pass to the mute Italian H? In ancient Rome, the rich spoke in a certain way and the poor in another: the educated language stressed the H at the beginning of words, whereas the uneducated instead did not pronounce the H. Catullus (a Latin poet of the late Roman Republic) gives testimony to this in a poem in which he mocks a certain Arrio who, in order to give himself airs, uses the aspirated H inappropriately almost everywhere.
The spoken Italian language inherited the diction of the rustic Latin people who did not pronounce the aspirated sound at the beginning of the word. However, the H survived in written Italian. Among its most hardened champions in the Renaissance was Ludovico Ariosto (“Who omits the H from huomo, and who omits it from honore, does not deserve honor”). In the end, however, the enemies of the H won out and imposed a simplified spelling without the H at the beginning of a word. Starting at the end of the 6th century, a writing custom was defined that saved the H only for avere in the 3 singular persons and in the third person plural of the present indicative of the verb: hence, ho, hai, ha, and hanno, so as not to be confused with other words of the same sound but different meanings: o, ai, a, anno.
Now we can explain the school manuals to children and why in the conjugation of the verb “to have,” we do not write habbiamo and havete.