An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ’ear it.

The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced “aitch” /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as “haitch” /heɪtʃ/. In my biology years I would always have said “a HLA marker”, never “an HLA marker”. This haitching is a distinctive feature of Hiberno-English, one that may have originated as an a hypercorrection but is now the norm in most Irish dialects.

A search on IrishTimes.com returned 1,946 hits for “a HSE” and 92 for “an HSE” (HSE = Health Service Executive), excluding readers’ letters and three false positives of Irish-language an HSE “the HSE”. Even allowing for duplications, this shows the emphatic preference for aspirating H in standard Hiberno-English. Haitchers gonna haitch.

Pronunciation comes bundled with a lot of cultural baggage, and whether one aspirates H or not can provoke strong reaction. Online you’ll find articles, blog posts, videos, forum comments and Facebook groups insisting on “aitch” and deploring “haitch”, while in Northern Ireland it’s a social/religious shibboleth of violent significance, as I’ve noted elsewhere: Catholics haitch, while Protestants aitch.

Haitching and aitching vary both regionally and socially, then, and sometimes this variation manifests in strikingly contradictory fashion. Last week’s edition of the local freesheet Galway Advertiser appears to have hedged its bets in choosing between an aitch and a haitch in the headline of a story spread across pages 1 and 2:

galway advertiser newspaper headline 14 nov 2013 - a hse, an hse

Newspapers should strive for consistent style, but I’m not aiming to poke fun here. These things happen, and the consequences are negligible to nil. Regardless of how it came about, it’s an interesting discrepancy.

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. But that’s another can of worms-from-haitch-ee-double-hockey-sticks, to use a euphemism I heard lately.

The history of H itself is also quite complex. From the OED:

When the Roman alphabet was applied to the Germanic languages, H was used initially for the simple aspirate or breath-sound, which had arisen out of a pre-Germanic or Aryan k, through the stages of guttural aspirate /kh/, and guttural spirant /x/ . . . .
The name aitch, which is now so remote from any connection with the sound, goes back through Middle English ache to Old French ache = Spanish ache, Italian acca, pointing to a late Latin *accha, *ahha, or *aha, exemplifying the sound; cf. Italian effe, elle, emme, etc. (The earlier Latin name was ha.)

In Australia some see the spread of haitch (through the efforts of “linguistically subversive Irish nuns”) as a measure of society’s “linguistic, even moral, disintegration”. Lynne Murphy has read in several places that haitch marks the Catholic-educated in Australia, though Adrian Morgan in a comment says “there is definitely no widespread perception in Australia that such a correlation exists.”

Throughout the UK there appears to be a drift towards haitching the letter’s name. Jo Kim of the BBC Pronunciation Unit – which despite enduring protest considers “haitch” (or “haytch”) to be a legitimate variant – says the pronunciation:

is increasingly being used by native English-speaking people all across the country [i.e., the UK], irrespective of geographical provenance or social standing. Polls have shown that the uptake of haytch by younger native speakers is on the rise.

This observation is informed by research from John Wells, who in his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary presented the following trend:

John Wells - Longman Pronunciation Dictionary - H aitch haitch

Visiting universities around Ireland, Wells was “particularly struck by the expression piː heɪtʃ diː PhD” (“pee haitch dee”) – a pronunciation that would be customary for me and most people I know.

I wonder whether aitching H correlates at all with the winewhine merger – or, phrased another way, whether haitching H correlates with pronouncing wine and whine differently. I’d be interested to hear your preference, “aitch” or “haitch”, and what your dialect is.

Updates:

There’s a follow-up to this at Language Hat, with good comments as usual.

More on aitching v. haitching from the Australian linguists Superlinguo, who link to their discussion about H on Triple R community radio.

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58 Responses to An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ’ear it.

  1. Jacob says:

    “Haitchers gonna haitch.”

    I love this pun.

    Anyhow, I am from Hastings in East Sussex. I was taught at comprehensive schools in a pretty rough area.

    I always said “haitch”, until at sixth-form college a (privately educated) friend talked loudly about how much that irritated him. I changed to “aitch” pretty much immediately.

    “But that’s another can of worms-from-haitch-ee-double-hockey-sticks, to use a euphemism I heard lately.”

    0.o

    I can’t work this one out … are you willing to elaborate, or is this a family friendly blog? :P

    • Dw says:

      A vertical hockey stick resembles the letter L.

      • Roger says:

        On that breathless theme, English /hockey/ sounds like French /hoquet/ = Eng. /hiccup/ — for those /a bout de soufflé/
        (the acute accent is the keyboard’s, not mine).

      • Stan says:

        Thanks, Jacob! Maybe the pun should’ve appeared in the title. The puzzling line means “can of worms from hell”; as Dw says, the hockey sticks in “haitch-ee-double-hockey-sticks” are capital Ls. I noticed it for the first time in Buffy quite recently, though I’m sure it’s a metphor of some vintage.

  2. Rise says:

    Ach, I’m in the “aitch” camp. It’s like an itch to pronounce it that way. That will be the preference of Philippine English.

  3. I hope I’m a better writer now than when I wrote that comment on Lynne’s post: I stand by its content, but it’s a tad too emphatic.

    (I say “haitch”, and always have, but I’m a nonconformist.)

  4. “Lynne Murphy has read in several places that haitch marks the Catholic-educated in Australia, though Adrian Morgan in a comment says “there is definitely no widespread perception in Australia that such a correlation exists.”
    I’m uncertain whether any research has been undertaken in Northern Ireland, where, at one time, the speaker’s choice on the haitch/aitch option was (intentionally or otherwise) would have been an explicit tribal signifier. I’m not so certain whether this is so any more.

    • Roger says:

      Re Catholics on the H: personal name /Antony/ has variant /Anthony/ – or the other way around.
      A (Catholic) teacher once told me that the H-less Antony
      was Catholic and the other one wasn’t.

      I don’t know how the H the H got into Antony in the first (or 2nd) place, since the Romance versions have none (or do they?).

      And it’s not as if AntHony’s H functions like ArTHur’s,
      which likewise is H-less in Romance.

    • I don’t know about research on it, but in my own experience growing up in a rural Unionist community in County Tyrone in the 70s and 80s, ‘haitch’ was considered to be a Catholic shibboleth (and I can even remember it being directly connected with the H-Blocks on occasion). That said, I have noticed many Protestants using ‘haitch’ some of the time, as I do sometimes myself. I suspect it’s kind of like (London)Derry in that respect – ‘Londonderry’ was considered correct by the Protestants I grew up around, but ‘Derry’ was often used by them, especially when they weren’t thinking about it.

  5. BTW – I’ve always thought ‘haitch’ required more effort, and so therefore I’m in the ‘aitch’ camp.

  6. Kelly says:

    I grew up in South-west England saying “haitch” but always with the idea that “aitch” was the ~correct~ version (the same as how I viewed “brung” vs “brought”), so I said “aitch” in more formal contexts such as on the phone (my surname has a not-phonetically-justified H in it, so I often have to spell it out). Then I moved to Ireland and after several incidents of “aitch” “what?” “aitch” “what?” “haitch” “ohhh” when spelling my name (not sure whether it was wilful or genuine confusion or somewhere in between), I started using “haitch” pretty much all of the time which I still do though I’m living in England again now. The exception is acronyms with H in the middle or end (like NHS or smh) where I use “aitch” (but “haitch” when it’s at the beginning like HE).

    • Roger says:

      Re abbreviations and /an/ or/a/ before sets of initials with H:
      the same may apply to /an/ or /a/ before sets of initials leading with N, or other letters ordinarily taking /an/ — if, that is, the writer assumes that the reader is deciphering the set fully into words. For ex, (a) “an NP news report” vs. (b) “a NP news report”, in which (b) is read as “a National Post news report”.
      Well, hmm, maybe.

  7. Dw says:

    As far as I’m aware, “haitch” is not used on the areas of the US that have resisted the wine-whine merger.

  8. Dawn in NL says:

    Well I’m glad you asked because I was going to tell you anyway :)

    I am from east Fife in Scotland and I say itch. As I have not lived in Scotland for 27 years (though I visit several times a year) I could not say if there is a tendency towards haitch, or aitch, but I am always suspicious when I hear “across the country” I would not assume it was all UK, even when they say so. I also say Jye and not Jay for the letter J.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for the variant datum, Dawn! When I was preparing the post I came across a few other ways people pronounce the letter, but I decided not to include them. So I’m glad you stopped by and lent a necessary complication to the matter.

  9. limr says:

    *raises hand* American, here!

    I’ve always said aitch and have never heard another American say haitch. I did work with a woman from Northern Ireland who said haitch, and yes, she is Catholic. I also heard colleagues from England using haitch, so I assumed it was more widespread in British English than it seems to be according to this post. But I was dealing with a relatively small sample size, I guess!

    Those same colleagues did indeed tease me about dropping the /h/ in ‘herb’ but frankly, we Americans always thought it was silly to leave it in. It always made me think of a man named Herb (short for Herbert, of course ;) )

  10. Nurn says:

    I’m entirely interchangeable, having been brought up in the USA saying aitch, and then wanting to conform when I moved to Ireland aged 12. (I also started saying “zed” instead of “zee” then, but I’ve reverted there as “zed” seems to be dying out a bit.)

  11. Roger says:

    “(?) of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but our aitches”
    — G. Orwell on BBC voice and accent.

  12. Roger says:

    Thank you for the social difference and hint of violence in the use of haitch-aitch in N. Ireland. I’ve heard similar in regard to the use of the familiar 2nd-person pronoun among Russians; i.e., that its unjustified or improper use is considered a provocation. Likewise for minor lexical differences between Serbian and Croat in the 90s.

  13. Roger says:

    Re “muting of H in /herb/: muted, yes, and sometimes with a glottal stop too, which is otherwise rare to non-existent in North America.

  14. Roger says:

    Re the ins and outs of H in French: I heard a very breathy initial H for “Harlequin” once, from a naturally bilingual Eng-French speaker,
    and quite different from what French does to French words of Germanic origin, /hareng/, for ex.
    However, he was speaking to me in English and may have been compensating.
    When, historically, did French lose (most of) its aitches?
    Pretty early on, I think.

    Spanish, by contrast, requires a noticeable exhalation for the Hispanic /j/, some think arising from the Moorish occupation.

    Sp. also replaces many initial F’s with silent H’s.
    In theory, the brave bull Ferdinand would be (H)ernando,
    like stout Cortes.

  15. Roger says:

    Among Germanic languages, is aitch-dropping found only in U.K. English? I can’t imagine it in German or Scandinavian.

    • dainichi says:

      Standard Danish sometimes has silent h before j and v. I assume these were once pronounced. Currently hjul (wheel) and jul (Christmas) are both [ju:l] and hvin and vin are both [vi;n], the latter being the direct Danish parallel of the whine-wine merger.

  16. Roger says:

    I read once that North Germany-South Denmark has an Anglo-Danish dialect that can sound “eerily familiar” to English speakers.
    I haven’t been able to find anything further about same.

  17. Roger says:

    Re wine-whine: wordplay won’t work if the listener is a non-exhaler; for ex, having a picnic at the beach because of all the sandwiches / sand-which-is / there; not if it has to be followed up with a lead-balloon explanation.

  18. stuartnz says:

    Haitch is still uncommon among the NZE speakers I hear, but the rise in frequency of haitch among AusE speakers has been quite noticeable, at least to my ears.

  19. seajay23 says:

    A lot of people don’t realise that until the late 60s there was a significant catholic/’protestant’ divide in Australia. Haitch was certainly a signifier of the ‘papist taint’ and we catholics were advised not to use it if applying for a job with a non-catholic employer. Fortunately those days are gone but haitch persists; my unscientific observation would be that it is mostly used by those educated in the catholic school system, which is about 25% of the population.
    To Australian ears the English pronunciation of vitamin is grating, why the short I? How do the English pronounce vital?

    • Roger says:

      A suburb here called St. Vital used to get both the long and the short; more recently mostly just the short with stress on final. That’s in English Canada.

      In Montreal I used to hear Anglophone intentionally anti-French pronunciations of names like Pie Neuf (= Pius the Ninth),
      in which the Pie would sound like the pie of apple pie, or pi the Greek letter and symbol, or rhymed with /high/, instead of something approximating Pee; and the whole would come out as “Pigh Nine”

      Some Anglophones gave L’Acadie an exaggerated 2nd syllable stress, and skewed the vowel as “Lah-KAY-dee”.
      If correct versions were demonstrated, they would rebut sacrilegiously in the French manner with “That’s francais, calice!”

      And so it went. That was long ago. I hear it’s all sweetness and light now.

  20. maceochi says:

    I’ve called the letter H ‘haitch’ all my life and I think it’s something we should hold onto in Ireland! I’m a Galwegian myself.

    What do you have to say about H-dropping and H-insertion, for example in Cockney speech? Do they always go hand in hand (‘and in ‘and) or do people often do one but not the other? I’m thinking of the Punch drawing in which the woman asks “do you have any ‘ole jam?” and the shopkeeper answers “no ma’am – all our jam is quite new.” I think this may be even more socially significant than the name of the letter H.

    By the way, I’ve started a new blog, maceochilanguagelearning.wordpress.com, and I’d be delighted if you could find the time to give it a look. Thanks!

  21. thomasthethinkengine says:

    I’m an Aussie and I remember hearing the Haitch pronunciation as a child (after being taught Aitch). I asked my dad (catholic-born, turned toff/atheist), he told me it was a sign of going to Catholic school and I should say Aitch.

  22. John Cowan says:

    Roger: probably Frisian.

    As the other Yanks here have noted, we are an aitching people, though we are generally all for initial /h/ in contexts other than H and herb, and I think this has been true for centuries. But the whine-wine merger in American speech is a fairly recent matter; my wife and other Southerners of her generation do not have it. So I think there is no particular connection between the two except that Ireland is a reservoir of both.

  23. oneblankspace says:

    I speak freshwater US English as my first language. The first time I can recall hearing haitch was from a Welshwoman.

  24. Dw says:

    Indian English often has “haitch”. It also has the wine-whine merger, with the exception of some Marathi speakers who post-aspirate “whine” as a spelling pronunciation.

  25. Stan says:

    Thank you all for the reports, impressions and anecdotes from Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, India, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA. Oh, and Galway. It was very interesting to read them.

    seajay23, vital in UK English rhymes with title. Vitamin is spoken with a short vowel sound in Ireland too.

    maceochi: Well done on starting your new language-learning blog. It looks very interesting.

    Leonore: I don’t know how much haitching there is in England, or how it’s distributed geographically, but I imagine it’s more widespread now than ever, if the trend Wells observed continued apace.

    Roger: Re. Russian forms of address, this BBC article on a similar aspect of French may be of interest, if you haven’t seen it.

    John, thanks for your observations on the wine–whine merger.

  26. I’m from Dublin and I say “haitch” always (and distinguish between “whine” and “wine”).

    When I moved to England I got slagged – nicely – a lot for pronouncing the letter R as “or” rather than “are/arr” – not sure if that is as defined in the Anglosphere as (h)aitch.

  27. Leif says:

    I’m from Canada originally and as fas I know I’ve always said ‘aitch’.
    In my pre-conversational days I lived in the East — Charlottetown; plenty of Scottish / Irish influence in that part of the world, but I moved to Toronto at 6 y.o.

    Toronto was traditionally staunch Presbyterian — lots of Orange Order influence — but I wonder, given it was already quite multicultural when I was a kid, whether that could mean anything.

  28. Siobhan says:

    I say ‘aitch’ but then I’m a posh Edinburgher – my mother speaks Fife dialect and says ‘itch’.

  29. jonathan kika says:

    good work!

  30. Stan says:

    Caoileann: I had a similar experience of good-natured slagging when I spelled things for two Scottish friends I was living with in Prague. ‘R’ was among the problem letters, and I think my ‘A’ sounded like babytalk to one of them.

    Leif: Thanks for your report from Canada. I guess we’d need more numbers before reaching any conclusions about the Presbyterian influence on aitching in Toronto.

    Siobhan: Interesting! I rarely hear the ‘itch’ pronunciation, but am glad to know it persists in dialect.

  31. Bathrobe says:

    I’m an Aussie and I used to say ‘haitch’ as a kid, although I probably said ‘aitch’ too. We are talking 1960s here. It would never have occurred to me that it was a sign of being a Catholic (or ‘Cattle-Tick’ as we used to call them); it was just an ordinary pronunciation, perfectly logical given the sound that it’s supposed to represent. I was barely even aware of any difference between the two pronunciations. However, as I’ve grown older (and since I’m living overseas) unfortunately I’ve grown out of ‘haitch’, which I’ve left behind like many other youthful habits.

    • Stan says:

      Bathrobe: If it’s unfortunate, there’s no reason you shouldn’t re-adopt the pronunciation, at least as an occasional variant. Language change in action! As for “haitch” being a marker of Catholicism or Catholic education: it seems the correlation in Australia is much less strong than in Northern Ireland (and even in NI it’s not a certain predictor). Recent data on this from either location would be welcome, but I didn’t look for it.

      • Bathrobe says:

        The other day I was talking under my breath while looking something up. I distinctly heard myself saying haitch. So I’m still ok :)

    • From another Aussie. Looking back to the 50’s, I recall that haitch was pretty much standard for the kids that went to the convent school. But it was also very common with friends who went to the State school in my area. For the Protestants it might have been a “class” marker, to a degree. At some stage in my university career I noticed that aitch was the standard, so I switched to that; just as I started to say film, instead of fillum.

    • Bathrobe says:

      Actually, when I was back in Australia in December, I had occasion to phone a Federal government department. Since it was near the Christmas break, I was answered by a recorded voice that, among other things, gave the name of a building where department had offices. As is common in Australia, the building was named after a person, and the name happened to contain H as an initial. When saying the name of the building, the lady in the recording clearly said ‘haitch’. So it appears that this usage is widespread enough in Australia for adults to use it in public announcements without any qualms.

      • Stan says:

        Bathrobe: Saying it automatically to yourself is a good sign! As is its use in public announcements – thanks for letting me know about that.

        Gerry: I imagine it’s common enough in certain areas for people to switch from one to the other once they notice what the prevailing norm is. Epenthetic ‘fillum’ is still fairly popular in Ireland, but I don’t have any data on its distribution or whether it’s being sustained.

  32. […] Stan Carey has a post on ‘haitch’: a mainly Irish pronunciation of the name of the letter H. I have heard local pronunciations of other letter names in Ireland. […]

  33. mollymooly says:

    R, A, and Q have Irish pronunciations too.

  34. […] An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ‘ear it. […]

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