Issue 17 Laughter Spring 2005
H & Co.
A letter, like everything else, must ultimately meet its fate and, over time, every written sign of speech falls out of use. No matter how eminent its place in the idiom to which it belongs, a letter ultimately grows quaint, then rare, falling finally into utter obsolescence. A grapheme, however, has more than one way to go. Its demise can be more or less a matter of nature, as it were, the result of a gradual and irrevocable occurrence that owes nothing to resolutions on the part of a writing community. One thinks of the archaic Hellenic letters that had already begun to vanish from Greek scripts before the classical literary tradition as we know it came to be transcribed: from the most illustrious and often commented upon of the set, the semi-consonantal digamma (), which was once the sixth letter of the alphabet and whose traces can still be found in Homer, to the koppa (Ϙ), the sampi (Ϡ) and the san (Ϻ), to name only three figures to whom the memory of marks has not been kind.1 But one need not look as far away in space and time as ancient Greece for evidence of the disappearance of members of alphabetic systems. English suffered its own losses: after the invasion of the Normans, the Anglo-Saxon eth (ð), thorn (þ), aesc (F), ash (æ) and wynn (ƿ) slowly went their way, and the last of the representatives of the old script, the yogh (ʒ), followed them soon afterwards, once a contrasting continental g established itself in the abecedarium of the language.2
Elements of writing, however, can also grow obsolete on account of deliberation and decision. For better or worse, their fates can rest on the judgment of those who would, or would not, write them. A glance at the history of writing reveals the brute fact: letters can be forcibly evicted from the scripts to which they once belonged. In a drastic orthographic reform of 1708, Peter the Great, for example, decreed that a series of rare figures of Greek origin (such as the θ, the ξ, and the ψ) were to leave the Cyrillic alphabet immediately, and shortly after the October revolution, the linguistic representatives of the new Soviet state declared that a host of letters were in truth superfluous and henceforth never again to be printed. 1917 thus became the year of the official obsolescence of an unusual z-mark (the зеʌо, ҫ), two rare types of i-graphs (the восьмиричное, і, and the десятиричное), and a sign for a vowel (a closed e) of considerable age and respectability (the ять, ҍ), which had entered the script from that most venerable of tongues, Old Church Slavonic, and which found itself, in revolutionary times, suddenly banished to the linguistic terrain of Bulgaria (where, it should be added, it did not last long, removed in turn from the Balkan script in 1945).3
Letters can also vanish more than once, and, like spirits, they can return to make themselves perceptible long after some would pronounce them quite defunct. A classic case is the grapheme h, from the spelling of whose current English name, “aitch,” the letter itself, tellingly, is by now absent. The sign of the sound characterized by linguists as a pure aspiration or a glottal fricative, h belongs to the alphabets of almost all the languages that make use of the Roman script. But the value it designates remains often imperceptible in speech; and in the passage between languages, it is almost always the first to go. The implications of this fact can be severe, as Heinrich Heine, a poet of mutiple h’s and two distinct types of aspiration (the pure [h] and the more constrictive [X]), knew well. In the memoirs he composed between 1850 and 1855, he commented on the alteration his name had undergone following his emigration from Germany. “Here in France,” he wrote,my German name “Heinrich” was translated into “Henri” just after my arrival in Paris. I had to resign myself to it and, finally, name myself thus in this country, for the word “Heinrich” did not appeal to the French ear and the French make everything in the world nice and easy for themselves. They were also incapable of pronouncing the name “Henri Heine” correctly, and for most people my name is Mr. Enri Enn; many abbreviate this to an “Enrienne,” and some called me Mr. Un rien.4
From “Heinrich Heine” to “a nothing” in four steps: the “translation,” geographic and linguistic, was in this case more than treacherous. Had the poet chosen to move not westwards, but eastwards, however, the consequence could have been at least as grave. For he might in his own lifetime have assumed an equally unrecognizable appellation, in which the initial letter of his first and second names vanished into not “a nothing” but “a something” at least as startling: Geynrich Geyne (Геинрих Геине), as he is known to this day in Russia.
The truth is that the breathy letter posed delicate problems from the beginning. Pre-Euclidean Greek inscriptions contained an h, no doubt the distant ancestor of the Roman letter. The mark of a consonantal aspirate, it is thought to derive from an earlier letter (H––), which represented an adaptation of the Semitic letter h.e¯t (which, in turn, engendered both the Hebrew ח and the Arabic ﺡ). The Greek h, however, did not last long, at least as the sign of an aspirate. By the early fifth century B.C., the grapheme h came to acquire a vocalic value, which eventually brought it to its classical form as the Greek letter eta (ệ); at the same time, the aspirate phoneme, by contrast, came to be indicated in writing by a “half-h,” namely, l-.5 From there, h followed a double path to obsolescence, both as a sound and as a sign. In the course of the centuries during which classical Greek was spoken, the once consonantal phoneme gradually gave way to a soft but audible “initial aspiration.” In Hellenistic times, the weakened aspiration began to leave the language altogether, and documentary sources indicate that by the fourth century AD, if not sooner, the sound was long gone. During the same period, the l-graph, a fragment of its former self, shrank in size, losing its rights to a full position in the writing of letters. The philologists and grammarians of Ptolemaic Alexandria reduced it to a small mark placed above the letter it modified. Still later, scholars and copyists abbreviated the sign further, making of it a diacritic, placed before the modified vowel, which was barely more sizeable than a period, and which closely resembled our modern apostrophe. Hence the final form of the grapheme in the Hellenic script: ‘, designated by the specialists of the Greek tongue ever since not as a letter but as a “spirit” (to be exact, a “rough breather,” spiritus asper or πνευ̑να δασει̑αν, as distinguished from the “smooth breather,” spiritus lenis, or πνευ̑να ψιλή, which indicated the absence of aspiration before vowels).
On the surface, the Latin script, by contrast, recognized h as a full-fledged member of its alphabet. But the grapheme of the Roman language seems to have represented a sound of as little substance as the Greek aspirate: “basically a weak articulation,” as one historical linguist has written, “involving no independent activity of the speech-organs in the mouth, and […] liable to disappear.”6 It is no doubt for this reason that the Romans themselves seem to have been unsure of the exact status of the letter in their language. In a passage of the Institutio oratoria, Quintillian, for example, voiced doubts about whether h constituted a “letter” at all.7 Despite appearances, his was a generously open-minded position: later grammarians, such as Priscian and Marius Victorinus, defined the mark in no ambiguous terms as “not a letter, but merely the sign of breathing” (h litteram non esse ostendimus, sed notam aspirationis,we read, for instance, in the influential De arte grammatica).8 Like its Hellenic counterpart, the Roman sound seems to have been infirm by nature, apt to vanish from whatever position in the word it occupied. Its historical demise was thus both gradual and irrevocable. First it vanished in the classical period between vowels (ne-hemo became nemo); then it disappeared, in the middle of the word, after certain consonants (dis-habeo became diribeo); finally, by the end of the Republic, it departed from its last hold-out, the beginning of the word (in common inscriptions, Horatia, hauet thus became Oratia, auet).9
Before long, only the most educated among Latin speakers could be sure where the elusive sound had once been. The stakes of subtracting—or adding—a breath or two became quite marked. In a poem, Catullus ridiculed one Arrius, who, to produce the appearance of erudition, added aitches at the start of his words, where they did not in fact belong.10 And in a famous passage of the first book of his Confessions, Augustine, denouncing the teachers of his day, took as his target the grammatical obsession with aspiration among Carthaginian magistri. “O Lord my God,” he wrote,be patient, as you always are, with the men of this world as you watch them and see how strictly they obey the rules of grammar which have been handed down to them, and yet ignore the eternal rules of everlasting salvation which they have received from you. A man who has learnt the traditional rules of pronunciation, or teaches them to others, gives greater scandal if he breaks them by uttering the first syllable of “human being” [ominem] without aspiration than if he breaks your rules and hates another human being, his fellow man.11
The teachers’ punctilious attention to orthography was clearly meant to distinguish them from the uncouth multitude, which knew nothing of the etymologically correct placement of breaths.
Amongst themselves, however, even the learned of the age expressed some uncertainty about the reasons for which certain words possessed, or lacked, aspirations. Aulus Gellius, for example, lived a good two centuries closer to the original aspirate than Augustine, but he was already well aware of the problematic status of the Latin “letter,” and in a passage of his Attic Nights he devoted a chapter to the question of its presence at the beginning of selected words in the language. It was, he argued, an entirely gratuitous addition, made by the Romans of ancient times who had wanted to increase the “force and vigor” (firmitas et vigor) of certain expressions and, at the same time, to recall the characteristic accents of the classical Athenians. “The letter H,” Aulus wrote,or perhaps it should be called a spirit rather than a letter—was added by our forefathers to give strength and vigor to the pronunciation of many words, in order that they might have a fresher and livelier sound; and this they seem to have done from their devotion to the Attic language, and under its influence. It is well known that the people of Attica, contrary to the usages of the other Greek races, said hikhthus (ιγθύς, fish), hippos (ιππος), and many other words besides, aspirating the first letter. In the same way our ancestors said lachrumae (tears), sepulchrum (burial-place), ahenum (of bronze), vehemens (violent), incohare (begin), helluari (gormandize), hallucinari (dream), honera (burdens), honustum (burdened). For in all these words there seems to be no reason for that letter, or breathing, except to increase the force and vigor of the sound by adding certain sinews, so to speak. (In his words, enim verbis omnibus litterae seu spiritus istius nulla ratio visa est, nisi ut firmitas et vigor vocis quasi quibusdam nervis intenderetur.)12
A graphic sign with no semantic “reason” of its own, h had clearly become in Aulus’ time a thing of some mystery. The erstwhile aspirate phoneme was, at least by the second century AD, a breath in need of explanation.
Since it had been marked by an orthographic figure and identified as such by the grammatical authorities of classical and late antiquity, the ancient “breather” did not vanish in the centuries that followed the demise of the Roman Empire. It persisted in the written language of the schools and universities of the Middle Ages; and even those such as Petrus Helias who, following Priscian, later denied it the status of a “letter,” did not go so far as to question its place in the alphabet.13 The real challenge to the letter came later. With the emergence of the grammatical sciences of the modern European vernaculars in early modernity, the “spirit” suddenly found itself the object of the most critical scrutiny. Starting in the mid-fifteenth century, grammarians, typographers, and teachers in Italy, Spain, France, and England called the grapheme to the court-house of national orthography, often threatening to do away with it altogether. At one extreme, there were the Italians. The first to extol the rights of the vernacular in the face of Latin, they were inevitably also the most hostile to this classical mark. In Il Polito, a treatise on orthography published in 1525, Claudio Tolomei thus considered the possible functions of the grapheme at some length, before reaching his verdict, which was unsparing: “I say,” he declared, “that no force obliges us to want this h among our letters.”14 And in the same years, Giovan Giorgio Trissino recalled in his Grammatical Doubts that h “is no letter,” subsequently adding: “it is a totally useless mark of breath” (in his reformed spelling, nota di fiatω tωtalmente ωzioSa).15
The grammarians of French and Spanish seem to have been more moderate in their judgments of the old aspirate. Like the Italian Humanists, they were of course aware of its singularity as a sign. In his 1529 Champ Fleury: Art and Science of the True Proportion of Letters, Geofroy de Tory, for example, qualified h as “neither a Vowel, nor a Consonant, nor a Mute, nor a Liquid, and by consequence no Letter at all.”16 And in his ground-breaking Book of the Differences of Languages and the Variety of the French Language of 1533, Charles de Bovelles remarked of the sound indicated by the mark that “one barely notices it on the lips of the French, unless the eyes come to the aid of the confused and almost indistinct perception of the ears.”17 But the philologists nowhere suggested that h be removed from the script of the language. Antonio de Nebrija, the first grammarian of Spanish, justified the modern use of the figure in systematic terms in his Rules of Orthography in the Castilian Language of 1517. Going so far as to treat h as a letter in its own right, he argued that it “held” no fewer than “three offices” in the modern language, in addition to recalling the aspirations that had once been sounded in Latin. It marked the Spanish successor of the Latin f (as in hago, which represents the modern form of facio); it helped in several cases to separate the vowel and the consonant, marking a vocalic u (as in huerto [uerto]); and, finally, when placed after c, it indicated “that sound that is proper to Spain, for which we have no other letters, mucho, muchacho” (in modern linguistic terms, the constrictive consonant [ч]).18
The threatened mark found at least as many friends in early modern England. Modern English, to be sure, had erected itself over the tomb of Anglo-Saxon aspiration. By the sixteenth century, the modern l had completely eclipsed the older hl- (as loaf had taken the place, for example, of the Old English hla-f), the solitary n- was well established there where hn- had once dwelt (nut, for instance, being the modern form of hnutu), and the single r- had acquired all rights over those positions that had belonged to the hr- in the older tongue (roof, in this way, having supplanted hro-f).19 The English grammarians, one could imagine, were perhaps unwilling to lose that last remnant of breath designated by h. The first orthographers of the language were in any case united in their defense of the contested grapheme. Sir Thomas Smith, the author of the first published treatise on English spelling (the De recta et emendata lingua anglicae scriptione of 1568), declared himself aware that “some people, over fond of the Greek, have, as it were, expelled h from the senate of letters” (quidam nimium græcissantes, è litterarum tanquam senatu moverunt),” and that still others had “replaced” it. Nevertheless, like Nebrija, he treated the sound alongside all the letters, maintaining that, “whether you choose to call it a letter or a spirit,” the English “use it freely.”20 And in 1669, over a century later, Holder argued in a similar vein that even if certain authorities rejected h as a letter in the full sense of the term, there were in truth good grounds for its official and integral inclusion within the territory of the English language: “in that it causes a sensible, and not incommodious discrimination of sound,” he wrote, “it ought to be annexed to the alphabet.”21
Well after the establishment of the canons of grammar and spelling in the modern European vernaculars, the question of the precise status of the elusively pure aspirate came to achieve a central place in the intellectual program of the Enlightenment. In 1773, C. T. Damm, a distinguished theologian and disciple of Christian Wolff, published a “Reflection on Religion” in which he provided a reasoned and methodical critique of the traditional German practice of employing the grapheme in the middle and at the end of certain words, where, he argued, it could not possibly reflect any convention of speech. “Universal, sound, and practical human reason,” Damm wrote, “authorizes our German minds newly to say how the letter h, which is never pronounced, came to be inserted between syllables by careless, unthinking bread-writers and so-called pulpiteers [unachsamen, unbedenkenden Brodtschreibern und so genannten Kanzellisten], and to say that the aforementioned h must be done away with [abgeschaffen], insofar as it is a useless, unfounded and barbaric practice which is insulting to our nation in the eyes of all foreigners.”22 That more than “the aforementioned h” itself was at issue in such a “reflection” became particularly clear in the final lines of Damm’s polemic. Here the Protestant theologian declared, in threatening terms, that “he who, in spelling, is unfaithful with respect to that little letter, h, is also, in the great revelations and mysteries of the universal, sound, and practical human religion, willingly unfaithful and unjust.”23
Today Damm’s “Reflection” is best known on account of the response it provoked by one of the dissenting voices of the age, Johann Georg Hamann, who quickly came to the defense of the grapheme in a “New Apology for the Letter H” also published in 1773. Accepting the challenge of what he called an “orthographic duel” (orthographischer Zweikampf),24 Hamann reflected on the two reasons adduced by his adversary for the proposed spelling reform: that h is not pronounced; and that, when unsounded but written, it cannot but bring disgrace upon the German nation among the peoples of Europe. Hamann concluded that both reasons were spurious. Damm’s proposal, it followed, was a barely disguised “crusade against an innocent breath,” an act of unmotivated aggression against a being whom “speech-brooders [Sprachgrübler] have more than once wished to recognize as a letter.”25 Why, the apologist wondered, had Damm so singled out h, among all the letters, for reproach? Hamann recalled that if the letter’s fault lay in its unsoundedness, the double l, the double s (or ß), and the double t, all unquestioned, would also have to go.26 He sketched the dire consequences that would surely issue from such changes in the landscape of the German tongue: “What fragmentation! What Babylonian confusion! What hodge-podges of letters!”27 And he dismissed, in a gesture, Damm’s attempt to convince his readers that “foreigners” considered the Germans to be “barbarians” on account of their silent aitches. Did not the English, the French, and the Latins before them all behave with the same “irresponsibility” (Unverantwortlichkeit) with the regard to the etymological h they too had inherited from antiquity?
At the end of his tract, the self-styled apologist revealed that his commitment to the letter was an interested one, in a double sense: it was, he explained, both professional and more intimate. Hamann now assumed a persona ficta, claiming for himself the mask of a poor school-teacher, who wished nothing more, in his modest life, than to impart some sense of spelling to his three classes, who awaited him with growing impatience even as he wrote. The author claimed, moreover, to be bound to the disputed grapheme by his own Christian name: Heinrich. In fact, the pseudonym, however, concealed the more pressing pertinence of the question for the author, who was far more profoundly implicated in the entire affair than he wished to reveal. For the thinker’s surname made him, quite literally, an “h man”: precisely a Ha-mann, as the German language has it, in both spelling and sound. It was perhaps for this reason that the apologist-author felt qualified, in the closing paragraph of his essay, to give the last word to the contested character himself. “The small letter h,” “Heinrich” now wrote, “may speak for himself, if there is any breath at all left in his nose.” So the “New Apology” proper ended, and thus began its appendix and conclusion: “The New Apology of the Letter H by Himself” (Neue Apologie des Buchstaben H von ihm selbst) in which the aspirate briefly rehearsed the schoolmaster’s argument, defending himself at last, not without certain traces of impatience, in his own name. “Do not be amazed,” H explained, “that I address you with a human voice, like the dumb and encumbered beast, to punish you for your misdemeanors. Your life is what I am—a breath!”28
In the course of the long and repeatedly threatened life of h, Hamann’s apology was hardly the last. A little over a century later, Karl Kraus, to name only one of the grapheme’s other great defenders, composed a poetic memorial for the fallen letter, “Elegy on the Death of a Sound” (“Elegie auf den Tod eines Lautes”), whose opening stanza sounded the following passionate injunction: “May the God of language protect this h!” (Daß Gott der Sprache dieses h behüte!).29 But the eighteenth-century essay was perhaps the first vindication of the sign on its own terms, as it were, neither as a consonant nor as a vowel but as the singular being it had been held to be since the inception of grammatical learning in classical antiquity: a written “breath.” In this defense of the obsolescent mark, there spoke, if only once, and if only in a whisper, the most illustrious member of the company of dead letters: the one letter of the spirit. One might also call it the spirit of every letter. For there is no written sign, however widely recognized its rights and however well respected its functions, whose sound does not pass through the mute medium of the “rough breather”; there is none that does not come into being and fade away into nothingness in the aspiration and exhalation designated by letter now called aitch. H, to paraphrase a poet who once removed it from his name, is the trace that our breathing leaves in language.30 That is perhaps why, in one way or another, it will not leave us: the rhythms of its appearances and disappearances are those of the inevitable, if irregular, expirations of our own speech.
Daniel Heller-Roazen is assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is the author of Fortune’s Faces: The Roman de la Rose and the Poetics of Contingency (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) as well as editor of Giorgio Agamben’s Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford University Press, 1999). His next book, Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language, is forthcoming from Zone Books.
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