To 'aitch' ... or not to 'haitch'?

The thing is this: For as long as I can remember, the eighth letter of the alphabet has been spelled and pronounced “aitch.” But now it is frequently being pronounced “haitch.”

Karen Norris/Staff

I know a teacher, now retired, who, after a punctilious career correcting the young, still remains as baffled as ever by the skill with which most of her charges eventually learned to read and write.

Her amazement is understandable. Our native tongue overflows with pitfalls.

Consider the inexplicableness (for a child) of a language in which the plural of “goose” is “geese” while the plural of “mongoose” is “mon­gooses.” Imagine the similar complexity involved in the fact that one mouse is a “mouse,” but several are “mice,” while a number of “houses” are not generally known as “hice.” Similarly, one would imagine, farmers’ children have to learn that while a lot of cows are described as such, a lot of sheep are not “sheeps.”

Then, if this is not sufficient illogic, there are the words that sound identical but have completely different functions, such as “there,” “they’re,” and “their.” Or “two,” “to,” and “too.” And why, a child might reasonably ask, does “through” rhyme with “boo,” when “though” rhymes with “oh,” not to mention that “rough” rhymes with “bluff,” “trough” with “off,” and “thought” with “got”? How can these things possibly be learned and taught?

Nor do the familiar phonetical sounds of the letters in the alphabet make things easier. I mention this because in Britain we are at a significant alphabetical crossroads. If we had imagined that the alphabet was set forever in concrete, we must, it seems, think again.

I refer to the letter “H.” It is being subjected to apparently unstoppable alteration.

This is a highly contentious development, stirring up ferocious emotions and obstinate opinions. I myself have vigorous feelings on the subject. Or I thought I did. The thing is this: For as long as I can remember, the eighth letter of the alphabet has been spelled and pronounced “aitch.” But now it is frequently being pronounced “haitch.” Even the BBC, long considered the arbiter of good English, is giving in to this trend by allowing “haitch” as well as “aitch.” 

It’s enough to send shivers of righteous dismay up and down one’s conventional spine.

Scene: In a camera shop with my wife. Young male assistant wants my email address, which includes an aitch. He repeats it after me, but translates “aitch” into “haitch.” So I leap onto my hobby horse and castigate him in no uncertain terms. My wife apologizes. “That’s OK,” says the assistant. “He sounds just like my mother.”

Perhaps it is a generational affair. It seems that people under a certain vintage are saying “haitch” and those of us who are over the same vintage say “aitch.”

My retired teacher tells me she always pounced on the “haitchers.” But it’s a losing battle. I feel sure that in a few more decades “aitch” will be as obsolete as phone books and floppy disks. Interestingly, although there is much in common between English English and American English, I can find no signs that America is giving up “aitch.” And maybe we Brits can look to the United States as a saving grace in this matter. 

It must be admitted, however, that there is an awkward history to the letter “H” in Britain. It was once considered grammatically disgraceful to “drop one’s H’s.” Well-bred southerners would criticize northerners who did so, talking of “ ’appiness” and complaining when the weather was “ ’ot.” This was not simply a north/south divide. In the musical “My Fair Lady,” southerner Eliza Doolittle was a cockney, a Londoner, who found it very difficult to believe that ’Enry ’Iggins meant it when he told her that in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.

The fact is, though, that the alphabet is already a bundle of inconsistencies. The letter “C,” for instance, sounds one moment hard, like a “K,” then as soft as the sea. “K” can vanish in words like “knot,” “knee,” and “knitting.” The letter “G” doesn’t know whether to be hard or soft, either. Sometimes it is both in one word: “garage,” for example, or “gorgeous.” It, too, can vanish without explanation, as in “gnat” and “gnome.” 

No less puzzling are such taken-for-granted peculiarities as the letter “W” (rendered phonetically “double U”) and the beg-to-differ final letter of the alphabet known as “zee” on one side of the Atlantic and “zed” on the other. To one of Shakespeare’s characters, “Z” was “an unnecessary letter.” But what of the unnecessary “H” to “aitch”?

I prefer “aitch.” But I can see why “haitch” might be growing in popularity. It has a clearer connection with the sound the letter makes. To be honest (note the silent “H”), its utterance makes me wince, but who knows? Perhaps I will have to learn to be “ever so ’umble” and swim with the tide. Or perhaps not.

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