AITCH OR HAITCH?

Stan at Sentence first has a good post about the Hibernian use of “haitch” for the letter most of the English-speaking world knows as “aitch.” I’ve always found it charming, and am amused by the example he provides of an issue of “the local freesheet Galway Advertiser” that in repeating a headline on the second page of a story has “a HSE” (i.e., Haitch Ess Ee) where the first version had “an HSE” (i.e., Aitch Ess Ee; see his post for screenshots). I was even more amused by the misguided historical analysis underlying the peevery cited at the end of this passage:

The history of h-dropping and h-adding at the start of various words is quite a tangle, made worse by the fact that people often feel their own version must be correct and others’ therefore can’t be. I’ve seen real fury directed at the American practice of muting the H in herb, from listeners probably unaware that sounding the H was a later convention.

He goes on to discuss the history of the name “aitch,” which goes back (via Old French ache) to “a late Latin *accha, *ahha, or *aha,” and ends with the extremely interesting information that “haitch” is spreading—see the telling graph from John Wells—and the following speculation: “I wonder whether aitching H correlates at all with the wine–whine merger – or, phrased another way, whether haitching H correlates with pronouncing wine and whine differently.” Lots of good stuff in the comment thread as well.

Comments

  1. I’d always thought “haitch” was an exclusively Irish pronunciation, so I was surprised to hear one of the commentators in the recent world chess championships refer repeatedly to “the haitch file”; he was from Tamil Nadu. Apparently it’s common in India (as a commenter on John Wells’s blog confirms).

  2. It’s a minority pronunciation in Australia, as commenters at Stan’s have noted. As I noted there, it’s uncorrelated with wine-whine, which was pervasive in the U.S. until just decades ago, whereas aitch has been used in the U.S. for centuries. It’s just that Ireland has both.

  3. (I meant Stan’s blog of course, not John Wells’s.)

  4. I live in a mixed household: my wife (brought up in Dublin) says “haitch”, my daughter (educated at a Catholic school in London) says “haitch” but I (educated at standard state schools in Hertfordshire) say “aitch”.

  5. The Catholic/Protestant divide is hardly definitive. One of the few Oireachtas politicians who says “an HSE” is Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, a Sinn Féin member who attended Monaghan Christian Brothers’ School.
    The name in Spanish is ‘hacha’ rather than ‘acha’, which is just etymologically novel as the Irish but has no effect on pronunciation. In French, the Académie used to prescribe ‘he’ [hə] rather than ‘ache’ [aʃ], which was a bit mean of it.

  6. A friend from East Boston does this. The cable channel HBO is “Haitch B O”. I don’t know whether this is characteristic of East Boston generally or perhaps just the Irish-American grandfather who raised him. My friend merges whine and wine.

  7. In French, the Académie used to prescribe ‘he’ [hə] rather than ‘ache’ [aʃ], which was a bit mean of it.
    It certainly was! I wonder if Mme Ruegg (who bullied us into learning decent French in high school) knew that?

  8. Ireland isn’t the only part of the British Isles where “haitch” is used fairly commonly. I’ve heard it in many different accents among freshers.
    On a related note, to this Scot’s ears all Englishmen “drop” the ‘h’, but with different frequencies. And I have a profound distaste for the absurd use of “an historian” or “an hotel” by anyone who wouldn’t drop those ‘h’s in his own speech. Why? I dunno; maybe because it’s bloody stupid?

  9. As a teacher in Thailand, I’ve noticed that Thai learners of English almost universally say “haitch” rather than “aitch”. This is quite useful in distinguishing “aitch” from the phonologically very similar (to Thai ears) name of the letter “s” (these two letters are pronounced /he:t/ and /et/ respectively by most Thais).

  10. marie-lucie says:

    In French, the Académie used to prescribe ‘he’ [hə] rather than ‘ache’ [aʃ],
    What is the date of this prescription? It must go back to the time when [h] was still used in Standard French, which is quite a while ago. If no one uses [h] anymore, the name of the letter would be the same as that for e, namely [ə]. I have never heard of this, or of any pronunciation except ‘ache’ [aʃ] (most likely from ‘hache’). Madame Ruegg knew what she was doing.
    [h] still survives in some dialects, eg in dehors ‘outside’ pronounced [dehɔr] not [dəɔr] (in two syllables), but has not been used in Standard French for a long time. I don’t think any current Académicien has ever used it, and not many can have heard it.

  11. “What is the date of this prescription?” Apologies, the link I gave was tied to a HTTP session. Anyawy, TLF s.v. “H, h, subst.” has the remark

    Les lettres dont le nom se termine en -e sont traditionnellement du genre fém. H, « ache », subst. fém. ds Ac. à ce jour; masc. ou fém. ds ROB., DAVAU-COHEN 1972; masc. ds DUB., Lar. Lang. fr., Lexis 1975. Il est d’autre part masc. sous la désignation he [hə], ds Ac. 1762-1878 et ailleurs

    I guess 1878 is “quite a while ago” fsvo “quite” and “while”.

  12. “I’ve seen real fury directed at the American practice of muting the H in herb, ”
    Behold the power of class anxiety.

  13. “tied to a HTTP session”
    I swear I didn’t plan that.

  14. I have a profound distaste for the absurd use of “an historian” or “an hotel” by anyone who wouldn’t drop those ‘h’s in his own speech.
    Me too, and I routinely change “an” to “a” in such cases while editing. It’s nice to have the power to do something about it!

  15. Garrigus Carraig says:

    I don’t know if I’ve confessed to it here but I have a problem: I’m an accent sponge. I pick up some of the accents of the places I’ve lived, so that now I speak in a monstrous hodgepodge. Anyway, recently I’ve started haitching, and I have no idea why or where it came from. I’ve never been to Ireland & haven’t had any Irish acquaintances in years. Don’t think I know anyone who haitches. Send help.

  16. Hat- could you unpack ” the misguided historical analysis underlying the peevery” a bit? Misguided how? What is the true history, as you understand it?

  17. Well, obviously, “Garrigus Carraig”, it dates from your adoption of that pseudonym. Shoulda stuck with “Komfo Amonan”.

  18. Garrigus Carraig says:

    How swiftly help arrives in these precincts!

  19. “Haitch” is a fairly common pronunciation in London and the South East of England in general.

  20. Hat- could you unpack “the misguided historical analysis underlying the peevery” a bit? Misguided how? What is the true history, as you understand it?
    It’s not a matter of how I understand it, it’s just history: herb is from Old French erbe (in fact, in Middle English it’s usually written erbe). The OED says: “In Old French and Middle English occasionally spelt with h after Latin; regularly so since c1475, but the h was mute until the 19th cent.” In other words, the (spoken) /h-/ was originally a spelling pronunciation, exactly the kind of “error” that gets people laughed at by pedants (and doubtless got the first people who used it laughed at). The people who get angry at Americans for not pronouncing the h are simply ignorant, since it is we Americans who preserve the original form and they who are innovating; there’s no sin in ignorance, of course, but there is in ignorantly attacking people for an error which in fact the attacker, not the attackee, is committing.

  21. Grackle, he means this: ‘I’ve seen real fury directed at the American practice of muting the H in herb, from listeners probably unaware that sounding the H was a later convention.’

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Haitch” is pretty common in Scotland, where whales always differ from Wales.
    Personally I distinguish w/wh but say “aitch.”

  23. This link provides the definitive comment on the aitch/haitch rivalry, and on any associated pedantry:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3y0CD2CoCs

  24. mollymooly says:

    Haitch is better than aitch for distinguishing H.A. from A.J. , and H.E. from A.G.
    Conversely, if a speaker uses aitch and a listener uses haitch, then the listener is liable to mishear the speaker’s H.A. as A.J.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    mollymooly: French h: he [hə], ds Ac. 1762-1878 et ailleurs
    1762 makes sense as a date when [h] was still in general use, and it looks like the Académie’s prescription was still valid in 1878 although the pronunciation might have been considered old-fashioned and on its way out, since the recommendation was not renewed in later editions of the dictionary, most likely because [h] was no longer part of Standard pronunciation.

  26. Haitch is fairly common in Cape Breton as well. I probably used it about half the time. I think I use it more often now, because I now live in Malaysia, where haitch is the norm.

  27. I use article “a” before a stressed syllable starting with “h” (“a history”) and “an” before an unstressed syllable starting with “h” (“an historical novel”). The “h” starting an unstressed syllable drops out, optionally, but even when it remains, the preceding article is “an”. That’s just the way it works for me. I guess the “a”/”an” alternation is not quite phonetic, any longer. (Sorry if that offends anyone’s sensibilities.)
    I have seen somewhere (can’t recall where) the theory that “h” is epenthesized to some vowel initial words by speakers of a dialect which epenthesizes glottal stop before phonemic vowels and optionally drops phonemic “h”. They hear a word starting with a vowel and no added [?], and can only suppose that an /h/ was intended, but was elided.

  28. My mother used to say “an hibachi,” which seemed odd to me.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    And I have a profound distaste for the absurd use of “an historian” or “an hotel” by anyone who wouldn’t drop those ‘h’s in his own speech.

    Some of these people, as mentioned above, do drop them in front of unstressed syllables. Others probably use a (breathy-)voiced [ɦ], which strikes me at least as less audible than [h], particularly in unstressed syllables.
    Yet others have learned it as an absurd spelling rule free of any connection to pronunciation. We hates them. All power to the Hat.

    [h] still survives in some dialects, eg in dehors ‘outside’ pronounced [dehɔr]

    …I had no idea! Where are they spoken?

    1762 makes sense as a date when [h] was still in general use

    That’s several hundred years later than I’d have guessed! What’s the evidence like? Were there orthoepists who described it?

  30. David Marjanović says:

    (I heard la haine with [h] on TV once. But the speaker was a Mauritanian in Mauritania.)

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve heard hache aspiré actually aspiré from a youngish speaker from Brittany, who couldn’t speak Breton (though her mother did) and seemed to my not very well attuned ear to be speaking pretty standard French in other respects.

  32. Personally I distinguish w/wh but say “aitch.”
    ^^ same here.

  33. David M.: there are some francophones in Canada whose consonant phoneme inventory still includes /h/. In Québec, because of the influence of the standard, such speakers tend to be older, but outside Québec I have occasionally heard some younger speakers with this phoneme in their repertoire (and with other conservative features which in Québec are associated with older speakers less exposed to the standard).
    In their speech such words as HACHE, HONTE and HAIE are all realized with word-initial /h/: indeed the first word and the name of the letter /h/ forms a nice minimal pair, with the name of the letter and the word for “axe” differing solely because the former is h-less and the latter begins with /h/.
    Outside Canada some varieties of French spoken in the West Indies also preserve this phoneme, unsurprisingly (since the West Indies and Canada were colonized at about the same time any conservative feature will typically be shared in both locations).

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Merci, Etienne, I had been hoping that you would come in with some precisions.
    If the loss of [h] had occurred “hundreds of years ago” as David thought, the sound would have been lost long before Canada and the West Indies were colonized.

  35. H aspiré is still pronounced in in the Belgian accent around Liège (mostly older speakers, I think). Littré also recommends it in his dictionary (1870s), but he is pretty conservative in his pronunciation guidelines. He writes, “Aujourd’hui, surtout à Paris, beaucoup n’aspirent pas l’h et se contentent de marquer l’hiatus : le éros, la onte, etc. ; mais, dans plusieurs provinces, la Normandie entre autres, l’aspiration est très nettement conservée, et cela vaut mieux” (http://littre.reverso.net/dictionnaire-francais/definition/h).
    On aitch vs. haitch, I recommend this Mitchell and Webb sketch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jo8FR8GGoJ0.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    SB: Littré’s comment fits in with [h] being standard in 1762 and on its way out by 1878 (the dates quoted above about the Académie’s position). Nowadays the “h aspiré” is a ‘phantom consonant’ since it does not have a sound but still acts as a consonant to prevent liaison and vowel elision, as in Littré’s examples, and also la hache (not *l’hache) ‘the axe, the hatchet’. With few exceptions the words containing it are of Germanic origin and frequently have counterparts with /h/ in English, as in my example.
    I grew up in Southern Normandy and [h] in such words sounds familiar. I must have heard it sometimes, probably from older rural people.

  37. I generally pronounce the letter h as aitch.

    And something in me just rejects “an hero,” “an historical,” etc. and reads these as “an kxero,” “an kxistorical,” etc. which can be annoying.

  38. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @mollymooly:

    The name in Spanish is ‘hacha’

    That would be hache. Hacha is ‘axe’, a relatively modern borrowing from French hache.

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