A Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum that started with the pronunciation of the composer Sibelius’s name in Finnish has diverged in many directions, one of them having to do with word-initial [h] in varieties of English. The presence or absence of this [h] is noticeable to most speakers, since the difference is phonemic, potentially distinguishing otherwise identical words (ham vs. am, heart vs. art, hail vs. ail, etc.). You are especially likely to notice an [h] where you don’t have one yourself or the absence of [h] where you have one yourself. Here’s the commenter Noetica on the subject:
In Australia we notice the American way with ‘erbs, and it sounds strange and pretentious to us.
This comment, clearly from someone who has an initial [h] in herb, both expresses an attitude about the (common American) [h]-less variant (“it sounds strange”) and attributes a motive to those who use it (it sounds “pretentious”). The attribution of pretentiousness was a surprise to me; it’s a reversal of the usual judgements about [h]-less herb from people who have an [h] in this word.Some historical background. English borrowed a number of words from French that were spelled with an initial H but had no [h] in their pronunciation (since French lacked [h], and still does). In some such words, an [h] was introduced into the pronunciation from the spelling; hotel picked up an [h], honor did not. For a few words, the presence or absence of [h] varies from dialect to dialect. Herb (also herbal) is one such word; in general, British English has an [h] in this word, American English does not. (The OED gives only the pronunciation with [h], while American dictionaries usually give both pronunciations, and sometimes note the British/American split.)
Complicating the picture is the fact that some non-standard varieties of British English have lost initial [h] (variably or generally), even in words like happy and hot that had them throughout the history of English. This is a well-known feature of Cockney English (hence Eliza Doolittle getting drilled by Henry Higgins on “In Hertford, Hereford and Hamsphire, hurricanes hardly happen”).
The sociolinguistic result is that speakers of standard British English are inclined to judge absence of [h] in words that they have an [h] in as “low-class” and to attribute this absence of [h] to “laziness”. I’ve had British colleagues express astonishment that I, a distinguished professor of linguistics, would “drop the h” in herb; it’s so, well, vulgar.
Now, suppose you’re unfamiliar with this social picture, but notice that someone else’s variant is different from yours and judge that variant to be “strange” or even “wrong”. You could leave it at that, but most people cast about for some explanation of why others say “wrong” things. The inventory of such explanations, beyond inadvertent error, is not very large: ignorance (they weren’t taught properly, they didn’t listen, they neglected to look it up), laziness, and pretentiousness (they’re trying to sound better than they really are, they’re trying to impress people) are at the top of this list. It’s surprising how often people fix on this last account, usually in the absence of any evidence in its favor.