On Sky News yesterday Adam Boulton reported David Cameron as (metaphorically) paying ˈhɒmɑːʒ to various Middle Eastern rulers (ones still in power, that is). I wonder if this was just his fancy way of pronouncing the word homage. This word was borrowed from Old French into Middle English some eight hundred years ago and is usually pronounced ˈhɒmɪdʒ. Or was he consciously reborrowing the modern French equivalent, hommage? If the latter, then you would expect him to know that French h is silent. In French the word is pronounced ɔmaʒ.
As experts on French will tell you, words spelt with initial h- fall into two classes phonetically. Some have the so-called “h aspiré” (aspirated h), which is unpronounced as such, or might sometimes be realized as a glottal stop; but in any case it blocks liaison that would otherwise occur. Others have “h muet” (silent h), which is equally unpronounced but allows liaison. For what it’s worth, the one in hommage is h muet.
As is well known, English has restored an h-sound in the pronunciation of many French loanwords (e.g. habit, heritage, hospital), though not in all (not in heir, honest, hono(u)r, hour and their derivatives). For herb the h has been restored in BrE but not in AmE. In BrE hotel there are a few laggards who have not yet restored the h, though most speakers pronounce it (except of course those who drop h anyway). You’ll also know about humble and (h)ostler. Let’s not get into h in unstressed syllables (historical, heretical, hysterics).
An awkward case is the visibly French loanword hauteur. In French it’s otœʀ. In BrE it may be pronounced as in French, or more likely in some such halfway anglicized form as əʊˈtɜː. That’s what you’ll find in LPD and CPD, without any restoration of h. But I notice that ODP gives an alternative hɔːˈtɜː — I can’t say I’ve ever heard this myself. In AmE I think the h tends to be restored insofar as the word is used at all.
The problem with having no h-sound in hauteur is that it makes it a homophone of auteur. I suppose there might just about be a misunderstanding if one referred to the (h)auteur in a discussion of some cinéaste’s oeuvre. But then of course they’re homophones in French anyway.
If we wanted to anglicize hauteur really thoroughly, perhaps we ought to spell it haughteur (or perhaps haughture, attested in the sixteenth century), like its cognate haughty, where the h-sound has been firmly restored. The spelling with -gh- is nevertheless etymologically entirely unjustified, being attributed by the OED to the influence of caught, taught and perhaps high, height.
The OED’s take on the pronunciation of hauteur is a strange mixture of French and English (o is meant to be “as in French eau”, while œ is “as in boeuf”).