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This article is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

Catchwords 22 Iain Bamforth
How To Be a Nothing

Letters of the alphabet generally fail to draw much attention to themselves, but Johann Georg Hamann wrote an entire book in defence of the grapheme h (pronounced 'ha' in German) in his Neue Apologie des Buchstaben H (New Apology for the Letter H), which certain German grammarians wanted to rationalise out of existence at the end of the eighteenth century. They felt that words such as 'Räthsel' (enigmas) or 'Geräthe' (instruments) ought to be spelt as they were pronounced: Rätsel and Geräte. Eventually the language reformers had their way. But Hamann felt obliged to defend this written trace of breath sounds in the language. Wasn't he himself a Ha-mann?

His defence of H lends a biting retrospective irony to Heinrich Heine's witty recounting, in his Memoiren, of how he, having lost the aspirated hatchet-sound at the start of both his names, became 'a nothing' in four steps:

Here in France my German name, 'Heinrich,' was translated into 'Henri' just after my arrival in Paris. I had to resign myself to it and finally even take on the name myself, 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 even unable to pronounce the name 'Henri Heine' correctly, and for most people my name is M. Enri Enn; many shortened this further to 'Enrienne,' and one or two called me M. Un Rien.

Both these elisions ...


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