Back to articles

Aitch versus Haitch

Aug 05, 2015

The debate continues

Battle-weary though we all are, we must face up to the problem of aitch versus haitch yet again. Now I know that you have all instantly retreated to the trenches but come on out for a minute and consider the situation calmly.

For various historical reasons we have ended up with this variation in pronunciation. Those of you who say aitch would do well to bear in mind that an accident of linguistic change has meant that the Latin ha – the name for the letter which illustrated the aspiration – has been altered by degrees through aha to ache to aitch – a name that no longer illustrates aspiration.

The attempt to return the aspiration to the name is logical enough. Any child learning the alphabet understands that a is for ‘apple’ and b is for ‘bat’. This is a good starting point for capturing the sound of letters, although already quite a lot has been glossed over in the creation of letter-to-sound equivalences. It is intuitively more logical to relate the name of the letter h to the aspirated rather than the unaspirated form. That is to say, h is for ‘hat’ rather than ‘hour’. ‘Haitch is for “hat,’ the child says. ‘No! No! No!,’ we all yell. ‘You must never, never say haitch. Aitch is for “hat”.’ It doesn’t add up but the parental pain is evident so the children add that to the list of extraordinary and pointless things they are supposed to say and do while their parents are around.

Parents know that if their children pick their noses, neglect their teeth, say haitch instead of aitch, they will never make it in the world. It’s as simple as that. Haitch is logical but not socially acceptable. Again history plays its part.

In Australia the haitch pronunciation has been linked with Irish Catholics, the Marist Brothers in particular, although no real research has been done into this and it may well be hearsay or at best circumstantial. So, the stigmatised pronunciation has been linked with a group who were traditionally the underdogs in Australian society.

It is remarkable that we fix on some idiosyncrasies of language as markers of the decline of Western civilisation, while others we are prepared to tolerate as acceptable variation. Of course, once such a pronouncement becomes entrenched in the language standards taught in school, then the chances of the proscribed item ever being accepted are strongly diminished.

Why can’t we regard this as a case of variant forms, as we do with ‘schedule’ (skedjool or shedjool) or ‘harass’? Why does it create so much unnecessary heat? That it is one of the things our parents and teachers dinned into us at school is something we ought to be able to regard dispassionately in our adult assessment of the relative importance of the bits of learning we acquired as part of our education.

Is it rather that we are reluctant to give up what seems so simple and obvious a proof of our own superiority?

People have fought wars because they felt superior to others. No one has done it yet on the basis of haitch, but it still remains an unnecessary social divider. You say to-ma-to, I say to-may-to. You say haitch, I say aitch. Let’s be tolerant of our little differences in language as in everything else.

In any case, the debate may roll over all of us because the young are endorsing haitch in ever-increasing numbers. Gender and social background no longer seem to have any bearing on the matter. It is in widespread use.

(This is an extract from Susan Butler's book The Aitch Factor.)

Do you say 'aitch' or 'haitch?

H, h

/eɪtʃ/ (say aych), sometimes considered non-standard /heɪtʃ/ (say haych)

noun (plural H's or Hs or h's or hs)
1.  a consonant, the eighth letter of the English alphabet.

2.  (as a symbol) the eighth in a series.

[the eighth letter of the Roman alphabet, corresponding to Semitic hheth or kheth, through Greek heta or eta. See aitch]

Usage (language): The name of the letter h is based on French (h)ache, in which the initial h is not pronounced. In imitation of the French, the English name is commonly aitch, but this means the name does not contain the sound of the letter. Those who pronounce the word as haitch and spell it accordingly as haitch, are in a sense restoring its original purpose. Younger speakers are generally more inclined to say haitch, although there are still some people in the community who do not regard it as correct. The link between this pronunciation and Irish Catholics in Australia is often claimed although there is only anecdotal evidence to support it. In any case the pronunciation has now spread more generally.

Want some help with other common confusables? Check out our other comparison blogs


Join the discussion!

9 Comments

Please sign in to post a comment. Not a member? Join Macquarie Dictionary today!


Maria - Aug. 9, 2015, 1:55 p.m.

either of the two wil do, whatever is comfortable for the person pronouncing it.


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Michael - Aug. 17, 2015, 6:57 p.m.

I'm happy with Haitch - Irish ancestry, Catholic School...but living overseas I find I have to aitch my surname so that people recognize it.


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Sandra - Aug. 25, 2015, 8:02 p.m.

Definitely aitch. If we start haitch-ing our aitches, we will have to start feff-ing our effs, and mem-ing our ems and so on.Besides, haitch sounds hawful!


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Cathy - Sept. 4, 2015, 3:08 p.m.

Agree, Sandra, haitch just does not sound correct.


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Hannah - Oct. 6, 2015, 12:22 p.m.

'Eff' and 'em' still have the sounds associated with the letter attached, whereas 'aitch' really doesn't (unless you consider the predominant use of 'h' to be as 'ch', which is silly). 'Haitch', however, does.


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Hannah - Oct. 6, 2015, 12:22 p.m.

'Eff' and 'em' still have the sounds associated with the letter attached, whereas 'aitch' really doesn't (unless you consider the predominant use of 'h' to be as 'ch', which is silly). 'Haitch', however, does.


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Tesh - Sept. 16, 2015, 2:50 p.m.

I'm 20, have always lived in Queensland, and always said 'haitch'. I don't mind if you say 'aitch' as long as you don't mind how I say it :)


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Hannah - Oct. 6, 2015, 12:20 p.m.

My name is Hannah, not Annah; I have insisted on saying 'haitch' since I learned my alphabet in the mid-90s.


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment:


 
Scott - Oct. 14, 2015, 8:08 p.m.

Aitch is one of the consonants that are almost considered vowels (we use an in front of them) - y is the other.
This probably comes from the dialects of English that drop their aitches (and other letter) - e.g. in Yorkshire they say "ouse" not "House" and "t' not "to", "erb" not "herb".
So obviously they would say "aitch" not "Haitch"


* Enter your name:

* Enter your comment: