I’m watching coverage of Roland Garros right now. There’s lots of talking because matches have been rained off. The guest pundit is a French ex-tennis player – I think it might be Fabrice Santoro. He’s just been talking about Nick Kyrgios’s outburst against a ballboy, and suggesting that Kyrgios should apologise to the ball boy and “put his harm around him”. Shortly afterwards he said: “What helse do you want?” This is, to my ears, a very strange error, but quite common even amongst very fluent French speakers of English; and Santoro is certainly fluent. It’s an example of a phenomenon known by linguists as hyper-correction – over-correcting, thinking you are correcting an error when the “correction” itself is the error. In French, of course, h is never pronounced, although it still lurks in the alphabet; and French speakers, aware that in English it is pronounced, tend to hyper-correct. The funny thing is that this doesn’t mean they always sound the h when they should. The rule seems to be to miss it out when the word actually does begin with an h, but to put it in when the word begins with a vowel.
Not that I am picking on French speakers, particularly. I once had a West Indian colleague at a college where I lectured, a highly educated woman whose English was grammatically perfect, who dropped h’s all over the place but called eggs heggs. And one only has to read the novels of Dickens to know that 19th century Cockneys systematically left out h’s where they were required and added them in where they were not.