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According to the etymology at Wiktionary, avē derived from a Punic word with an initial /h/, and was pronounced as such in the Classical period even though the word was spelt without.

Is this claim, that it was written avē but pronounced *havē, reliable?

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    What time period are you wondering about? Latin's /h/ was never especially stable and eventually disappeared completely. – Draconis Apr 21 at 5:07
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    I should have clarified this in the question, but the Classical period. I'm well aware that /h/ was lost — my question is about the possibility of an unspelt but pronounced /h/ (rather than a spelt but silent h-). – jogloran Apr 21 at 5:22
  • related: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/2360/… – fdb Apr 22 at 20:29
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That's what Quintilian implicitly said in his Institutio Oratoria (in the 1st century CE), and there's no real reason to doubt him in this case: the fact that the earliest attested plural form (in Plautus' Poenulus, almost three centuries earlier) is avo rather than avēte conforms to it being a Punic loan, and the Punic certainly started with (/ħ/ rather than /h/, but /h/ is the closest approximation Latin had). It's actually found written with the initial h in Latin in a number of cases, including at Pompeii, outside the House of the Faun:

have

Note that the e was originally short, as well: havĕ, not havē. (Though even if it were havē originally, it could still end up as havĕ due to iambic shortening.)

As for why it wasn't always spelled with the h, interference from avē, the 2sg. imperative of aveō 'I desire', is presumably to blame for that—Punic bilingualism was never widespread in Rome, so it's to be expected a folk etymology would develop. Semantically, "desire!" makes a lot less sense as a greeting than "live!", though, which is what the Punic actually meant.

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    Minor (!) quibble, but Quintilian did not say so in a Declamatio minor but rather in his Institutionis Oratoriae Liber I (6, XXI), where he in fact reports that there are people who do not pronounce the h (from which we may gather that the norm would be to pronounce it). He also mentions they pronounce the last syllable long; to wit: Multum enim litteratus qui sine adspiratione et producta secunda syllaba salutarit ("avere" est enim) [⋯] – Sebastian Koppehel Apr 21 at 18:47
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    @SebastianKoppehel You're right, of course. I happened to have this page open because it was linked from the Wiktionary entry and it has the wrong title tag, was the problem. – Cairnarvon Apr 21 at 18:57

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