I come from an area in the Netherlands where people have difficulties in pronouncing the initial h: the place Assen is called Hassen and Hoogeveen becomes Oogeveen. In the 60ties my father once needed a new fishing permit and pronounced his initials and name to the civil servant: AH (pronounced aa ha in Dutch) Tepper. He got the permit with the initials HA written on it!
This phenomenon is not new: the Romans too had problems with the initial h, as can be concluded from the various spelling harena (the right spelling) and arena. Italian has no words any more with initial h, French has, but the h is not pronounced, like the h in hour. This word is a loanword from old French. When it entered the English language in the 13th century, old French had already lost the pronunciation.
Catull describes a like phenomenon in poem 84: a certain Arrius used to put the h before every initial vowel and initial consonants got aspirated. Aspiration is unknown in Latin, except for Greek loanwords like philosophia – mind that ph was pronounced as an aspirated p and not as f!
There are two problems with this poem: who is Arrius and where does his habit come from. As for the identity, there are good reasons to believe that Arrius was the self-made orator Q. Arrius, once mentioned by Cicero in his book Brutus 242-3. This Arrius was connected with Crassus, whom we know to have been in Syria in 55 BC.
Next the explanation of this habit: some believe it was a peculiarity of a language still spoken by many Romans, maybe Etruscan or Venetic. Another possibility – and I think more likely - is that the pronunciation of the initial h was already lost in the Latin spoken by the lower strata of Roman society. So what we see here is hypercorrection: Arrius, whose grandparents were libertini (line 5), came from these lower strata and to be sure he hit the right pronunciation, he used the h always!
Of course there is no absolute certainty. Sometimes philology is a kind of detective work, but alas! many times it is impossible to catch the criminals as they hide themselves behind the text.
Meter: Elegiac couplets
Chommoda dicebat, si quando commoda vellet
dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias,
et tum mirifice sperabat se esse locutum
cum quantum poterat dixerat hinsidias.
credo, sic mater, sic liber avunculus eius,
sic maternus avus dixerat atque avia
requierant omnibus aures:
audibant eadem haec leniter et leviter,
nec sibi postilla metuebant talia verba,
cum subito adfertur nuntius horribilis:
Ionios fluctus, postquam illuc Arrius isset,
iam non Ionios esse, sed Hionios.
Chommoda: pronounce this word as khomodum, with a loud h! It could be that this is simply an exaggeration of Catull. commodum: profit, gain
insidiae: trap, ambush
mirifice sperabat se esse locutum: `in some wondrous way fancied himself to be fine speaking’
liber: it is strange that Catull calls his uncle free-born. It could be that he is freeborn, but that his parents were libertini: former slaves set free by their owner. When Arrius, was indeed the Arrius mentioned by Cicero, then of course everyone knew his parentage and Catull needed only this to bring back this detail about the parentage of Arrius.
avunculus: brother of the mother
avia: grandmother. Note that only the maternal side is mentioned.
requierant = requiverant from requiesco: to get rest
hoc misso in Syriam: this detail is necessary for the pun at the end as to get to Syria by ship, one had to cross the Ionian sea.
eadem haec (verba)
leniter et leviter: smoothly and softly
nuntius: message (it can also mean `messenger’, think of ‘papal nuncio`)
This translation and adaptation nicely captures the spirit of this poem:
When he wanted to say `advantage’ Arrius said
`hadvantage’. Likewise `hambushes’ instead
of `ambushes’ pronounced with hurricane force
and hugh self-satisfaction. (Well of course,
his mother, his uncle with the ex-slave’s name
and both his mother’s parents had the same
habit.) When Arrius was sent away
to the East, all ears enjoyed a holiday;
none of us dreaded aitches: vowels were spoken
harmoniously. Since then grim news has broken:
now Arrius has crossed the sea, the late
Ionian’s rougher by an aspirate!
(translation James Michie)