That doyen of accuracy, the Oxford English Dictionary, gives ‘aitch’ as the correct way of pronouncing the letter H. (‘Aitch’ is of course derived from the Late Latin ‘aha’ through Old French and Middle English ‘ache’. Aha, you didn’t know that?)
But, mysteriously, this is not the pronunciation that is gathering traction at the moment. ‘Haitch’ with an aspirate in front of the ‘aitch’ is gaining ground, and is giving me hammer-toes, hiccups and heebie-jeebies. You find it on switchboards, at schools, in reception, in box offices, in police stations, even on television. ‘Hhhhaitch!’ It makes me sad, partly because it is incorrect and mostly because it flies in the face of nature.
H is, of course, a very useful sound and letter. It is an emphatic, giving vowels a good firm start in life as in ‘hey!’ or ‘hello’ or hen, hospital or harlot; just as it does in a name like Horatius or Hero; or in Hitler who particularly liked the sound of his own name with an ‘H’ in front of it as in ‘Heil!’ though Churchill dropped it and called him ’itler’.
The strange thing is, it is actually an effort to pronounce ‘haitch’ the way that, say, the DHL or HSBC recorded messages and switchboards do these days. ‘Haitch’ is a push-me-pull-you noise. It starts off pushing well; the H-sound involves a chestful of air and a considerable exhalation from the mouth; but the early promise of the ‘H’ is fatally weakened by the pull of the sneezy ‘tch’ at the end; and you end up disliking it. It is full of sound and fury, but it signifies nothing. ‘Aitch’, on the other hand, requires little more effort than opening and closing your mouth.
In general, as spoken English has evolved over the centuries, the difficult bits have tended to be smoothed out. (The dropping of the pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ in milk is an example.) But in this instance of ‘haitch’, we find people choosing the awkward over the easy. It is strange if not perverse, but these days common sense is going out of the window so fast, there’s a bottle-neck at the casement; and it is perhaps to be expected that the difficult, unnatural and contrary should become, in due course, the norm.
Perhaps I am being too hard, though. Primary school children are taught the alphabet by saying the sound of the letters aloud as in ‘hur’ or ‘hah’. Very understandable, but unless one is careful, this is a trap. It can lead to putting the ‘hur’ or ‘hah’ in front of the letter ‘H’ when pronouncing it as well; and so the kingdom of error recruits its devotees.
And it’s not just the children. There are also the grown-ups. Many of the people who use ‘haitch’ are, whether they know it or not, actually trying to be correct. One of the basic lessons of elocution or of acquiring so-called respectability is the commandment that ‘thou shalt not drop thy aitches’. How better to remember this than by inserting it in front of the name of the letter! But…wrong again. For me. the ugly practice of calling the letter H ‘haitch’ is worse than dropping an H in the first place. Where is the fons et origo of all this haitching? Who is teaching the young aspirants of today to put their aspirations into the good old English ‘aitch’?
I haitched a lift and went on a voyage of investigation round some of the Boroughs of London, starting with a primary school in Kensington. At Bousfield School, they try to take great care to teach the children about calling the letter H ‘aitch’, a particular triumph since they are teaching in a catchment where over 100 different languages are prevalent. It was ‘aitch’ again at the Burdett Coutts Primary in Victoria as is only right for a school founded by a philanthropist whose father was MP for Westminster for 30 years.
So ‘aitch’ is apparently safe in at least two schools in KCW Today’s catchment area. But what of the fate of ‘aitch’ outside the epicentre?
I called Haringey and asked for the Education Department. The person I spoke to told me that in her opinion ‘aitch’ was correct. I was heartened. Then I spoke to a representative at Tower Hamlets who gave me a ‘haitch’ without needing to think about it.
I received a ‘haitch’ from Harrow (the Borough Council not the School), and a ‘haitch’ from a Hoxton primary. Going west to ski slope land, I found a ‘haitch’ from a primary in Hillingdon. Hammersmith Library likewise held out for an aspirated version of the H, and Hackney Library ditto. In fact, searching for ‘aitch’ was beginning to seem like looking for a needle in a haitch-stack. The verdict was ‘haitch’ at Hounslow, so I harked back east; cheating a bit since it is not in a London borough, to Hornchurch where, a year or so ago, I was given a resounding ‘haitch’ from a 6 year old at a local primary. Just as I was beginning to despair, I scooped a late ‘aitch’ from a primary in Homerton (which also received my award for the best recorded message).
Honours between the two pronunciations were by no means even. My findings suggest a weighting in favour of ‘haitch’ by about 8 to 4, but we shouldn’t be surprised at the gap. Error always seems more vigorous than virtue, and it does appear that the devil has some investment in ‘haitch’. Indeed, I am coming round to the idea that ‘haitch’ has the backing of the correctness lobby, and that there will soon be a government directive about it. So a stand is called for against this encroachment, and next time I hear someone using the word ‘haitch’, though naturally diffident, I must challenge the perpetrator in a kind of citizen’s harrest and try to make him or her understand that haitching is rather like dropping oral litter; ugly, unnecessary, physically perverse, and frankly bad English.
‘Drop your aitches if you like,’ I shall urge, ‘but for goodness sake pick up your haitches.’
Funny how so many London boroughs start with an ‘aitch’.
By Nick Salaman
Tel 07740 435 101