The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced ‘aitch’ /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as ‘haitch’ /heɪtʃ/. 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. (It’s also on the rise in British English, as we’ll see.)
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:
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.
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:
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. In my biology years I would always have said ‘a HLA marker’, never ‘an HLA marker’.
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. I’d be interested to hear your preference, ‘aitch’ or ‘haitch’, and what your dialect is.
There’s a follow-up to this at Language Hat, with good comments as usual.
Frank McNally’s Irishman’s Diary column in the Irish Times borrows my line for a discussion of Hiberno-English.
Tiger Webb has a good article at ABC on ‘aitch’ vs. ‘haitch’ in Australia and its sociolinguistic implications.