The sound of H is the sound of the breath. I’m not talking about the name of the letter, Aitch. I’m talking about the actual sound of the letter when spoken alone. It’s the sound you make when you breathe out to fog a window so you can write your name on it.
When by itself in a word, H serves as a sort of lead-in to the vowel that follows it, slightly emphasizing the breath that gives energy to all spoken sounds. Hello, here hide the hostile haunted.
Often, though, H pairs up with other letters to form a single sound. (A group of letters that form a single sound is called a digraph.) The humble H, it seems, is content to join with other letters in order to create something different. Rarely does it stand out.
The more I thought of words containing H-based digraphs, the more I admired the letter. Of course, C and H get together and I talked about that a bit on C-Day. When H joins G, the two might mimic an F as in laugh, or they may pull the neat trick of both playing silent while altering the other letters in the word. Without G and H, light becomes lit and the I diminishes from long to short. Take away GH from lighter to get liter and the I sounds like E, forming a completely unrelated word.
P and H hook up and once again we see F being sounded, as in phone or glyph. (What is it with F? Is it ashamed to be seen?)
H joins S to create a new sound, SH, the sound of hushing. Likewise, T and H make the TH sound, the sound that shows up throughout our speech, though on occasion H steps into the background and lets T have the day, as in thyme.
Perhaps my favorite matchup is W and H. Why do these two start off so many questions? Occasionally H does take lead, as in who or wholly, but mostly H lets W dominate and they form a sort of breathy W-sound, as in where, what and when.
All of this collaborating makes me think of improv. The best improvisers are not the funny or clever ones. They’re the ones who let go of themselves enough to be there for their partner. If both partners are able to do this, together they create something neither improviser could create on their own. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to improvise where both you and your partner managed to turn away from Self to focus on the Other, you know magic can happen. Stories, characters and dialog appear that are delightful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving, and almost always suprising. After such a scene, you might find yourself asking, “Where did that come from?” or saying, “Wow, I never would have come up with that!”
So I find myself honoring the letter H. As so much might be learned from the breath (students of meditation may relate to this), I think the humble, helpful H has much to teach. If the H shows an admirable humility, perhaps it’s because its very nature is so close to the source of every sound in our language. There seems to be a purity in this that suggests the H has no need to take center stage. It is completely secure in its nature.
Maybe to the degree that we can be secure in who we are, we let go of the need to have things be about ourselves and that’s when we can be there for another. And, if life is anything like improv, amazing things can result.