Frederick Ludowyk


Australia, it seems, is divided between those who merrily sing The haitch bone is connected to the thigh boneand those who sternly retort that, on the contrary, It is theaitchbone that is connected to the thigh bone, whatever the aitch bone may be.Of all the grizzles we receive about grammar and pronunciation, complaints about the letter H, like Abou ben Adhem, lead all the rest. Forget the contention between Melbourne and Sydney, workers and management, cantaloupes and rock melons, Patrick’s and wharfies: these are as nothing compared with the Great Australian Divide—between those who pronounce the letter H as haitch, and those who pronounce it as aitch.

The Haitchers, bless ’em, are not the ones who complain. The Aitchers, however, are a different kettle of cod. They see the spread of ‘haitching’ throughout Australian society as a measure of its linguistic, even moral, disintegration. In short, they believe, it is barbarous and ab(h)ominable.


Which brings me to Shakespeare. In Love’s Labour’s Lostthe silly pedant Holofernes, a schoolmaster, rages against those who mispronounce English words (‘rackers of orthography’ he calls them). The ‘racker’ is one who would ‘speak "dout" fine when he should say "doubt"; "det", when he should pronounce "debt"; d e b t, not det ... this is abhominable, which he would call "abominable" ’.

It is clear from this that Holofernes wants the /b/ sounded in doubtand debt.As a pedant he knows that doubtcomes from Latin dubitarewhere the b is indubitably pronounced. What he does not know is that the word came into English from the French and the French word is b-less to the eyebrows: hence, as the early fourteenth-century Cursor Munditells us of Doubting Thomas the Apostle, ‘lange he dutid’ (‘long he doubted’). Likewise, the word debtwas borrowed into English from French as det,the b being artificially forced into the word by sixteenth-century pedants like Holofernes himself because its Latin etymon was debitum.And, triumphantly, he wants an /h/ (or a /h/) intruded into and sounded in abominable.Again, this is on etymological grounds. As a Latinate pedant, he thinks that this word ultimately goes back to Latin ab homine(‘away from man’, hence ‘beastly’), when in fact he is wrong—it comes via French from Latin abominabilis,‘deserving of imprecation or abhorrence’, from abominari,‘to deprecate as an ill omen’. The passage demonstrates the precarious status of those linguistic pedants who appeal to the history of the language. Linguistic history is a double-edged sword. Or, as a famous mixer of metaphors once pointed out, by appealing to linguistic history, one can be ‘hoist on’ one’s ‘own petard’. (Apropos of nothing much, I wonder idly whether Shakespeare knew that petard,‘an explosive device or bomb’, derives from the French verb peter‘to fart’.) Holofernes is Shakespeare’s great warning about linguistic history—beware of linguistic pedants, even if they do know where petardcomes from!


‘They liked, as they did not drop their own h’s, to talk with people who did not drop theirs.’

John Ruskin
Holofernes’ pedantic little outburst demonstrates how abominable a letter H has proved to be in English. Holofernes wants to add/h/; his descendants over the years have been complaining about the droppingof aitches. The Aitchers do not sound an /h/ when they say aitch, but they take good care to pronounce the /h/ in initial positions (e.g. in harmand Holofernes). The Haitchers put in an /h/ when they say haitch, but some of them drop the /h/ in initial positions (‘There’s no ’armin ’Olofernes’)and put in an /h/ when there ‘hain’t none’ (‘H’ups-a-daisy, ’Arry h’old chum!).Well, who is right—the Aitch Mafia or the Haitch Push?

Some facts. The dropping of initial /h/ has been and still is a social marker in Australia; that is, it is believed by some to mark a person disparagingly as being the product of a working-class background (hence poorly educated) or of a Catholic education. In 1892, in his novel Nevermore,the Australian novelist ‘Rolf Boldrewood’ commented on a Haitcher: ‘A very fine young man, but evidently a nobody, inasmuch as he dropped his aitches.’ Boldrewood’s attitude of more than a century ago is obviously still alive and kicking today. The H-factor (the pronunciation of the letter and/or the dropping of it) is widely seen as a social solecism, the linguistic equivalent, one supposes, of tucking one’s napkin into one’s shirt collar at a formal dinner with the Queen. This is the context of a Sydney Morning Heraldcolumnist’s comment about Professor Niland (5 November 1997, p. 26):

Look. This column does not want to seemsnobbish, and, God knows, we have nothing against people who went through the Catholic school system. But yesterday we happened to hear an interview between the 2BL wireless talk-jock Philip Clark and the President-elect of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, Professor John Niland. They were discussing the need to overhaul the Higher School Certificate, commonly abbreviated to HSC. Clark referred to the exam as ‘the aitch ess see’ and Niland referred to it as the ‘haitch ess see’. Neither would give ground. Every time Clark said ‘aitch’, Niland said ‘haitch’. Clark politely did not suggest that Niland consult a dictionary on the pronunciation of the eighth letter of the alphabet. But this column ... can’t help wondering how any person who pronounces aitch as haitch can presume to comment on he education standards of this State, let alone be a professor.

‘It is a kinde of history.’ The Taming of the Shrew

‘Aitch’, let us face it, is an oddity. It is one of the rare letters in the English alphabet (w is another) which does not contain in its name the sound it represents. The Haitchers, therefore, have logic and common sense firmly on their side—haitch says huh for Harry, whereas aitch can only say uh for ’Arry! The Aitchers, on the other hand, may be illogical and devoid of common sense, but they do have history on their side. In Latin the letter H was originally aspirated (i.e. the ancient Romans said hicwith the h sounded), but in the late Latin period the h became unaspirated (i.e. while still spelling the word hic,they pronounced it /ik/). Whereas the earlier Latin name for the letter was ha, reflecting the aspirated /h/, in late Latin this became *accha, reflecting the fact that in late Latin the aspirate had been dropped in pronunciation and often in writing as well (heres‘an heir’ was pronounced without the initial h and often written as eres).So nebulous, in fact, was the status of h in Latin that even some of the ancients doubted whether it was a letter of the alphabet properly so called. Quintilian, for instance, whinged tetchily that Si H littera est, non nota(‘It’s not known whether H is a letter of the alphabet’). This dropping of the h was inherited by the Romance languages (which descended from Latin). The French didn’t drop the /h/ in writing but they dropped it in speech—l’hôtel,they would say, and haute cuisine(‘ote’, not ‘hote’). The Italians dropped the /h/ not only in speech but, logically, in writing as well—ospedale(hospital), they would say, and sigh that their sojourn in it was orribile.The Germanic languages clung to their /h/ with Teutonic thoroughness, as Adam clung to his flimsy fig leaf after the Fall. But English (a Germanic language) chopped and changed quite wantonly. The Anglo-Saxons sounded all their h’s. After the Norman Conquest some dialects of English were influenced by French conventions. Words borrowed from French were not aspirated—an hotel,they would say, since the /h/ was silent. And they often dropped the h in spelling (since it wasn’t there!). It must be at this point in the history of English that the letter h acquired the pronunciation ‘aitch’ in English, following the French convention. It appears in Middle English as ache. That, then, is the complex origin of h. Whether or not we should celebrate this French influence on English is another matter.


Whereas the dropping of one’s aitches is generally frowned upon—I am reminded of Thackeray’s delightful drawing-room where ‘theh and other points of etiquette are rigorously maintained'—there is a very strong tradition of the respectable dropping of one’s aitches. This tradition derives from the same French influence on English I have outlined above. In cases where French-derived words were pronounced with silent h, when preceded by the indefinite article it was logical to use the an form (since it was followed by a vowel)—thus an (h)otel, an (h)istoric occasion, an (h)eroic feat.However, many of these words have changed in pronunciation, and the initial h is now aspirated once again (we say herbs,although it is interesting to note that many Americans say erbs); we now say a hotel, a historic occasion, a heroic feat.(Follow this guideline and you would never need to eat a numble pie, not even a humble pie or an umble one!)


If the dropping of aitch is a social marker, the pronunciation of the letter h can also be a social, political, and sectarian marker. In the Irish Republic, the haitch pronunciation is common, but the situation is more complex in Northern Ireland where, it is claimed, Catholics say haitch, whereas the royalist Protestants follow the poms and say aitch. We are told in a Northern Irish newspaper that ‘H is the most dangerous letter in the Northern Ireland alphabet. Catholics supposedly say haitch, when Protestants say aitch. There may not be any scientific evidence for this trait but bigots can’t even spell scientific—so, depending on how you say it, H can get you a right kicking’.This is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but a quick surf through the Internet provided ample evidence for this aitch/haitch divide in Northern Ireland—say haitch in a proddy area or aitch in a mick area and you could very well be in for ‘a right kicking’.


Some would argue that aitching or haitching was once as much a sectarian issue in Australia as it is supposed to be so still in Northern Ireland. The received wisdom is that ‘haitch’ was introduced to Australia by Irish Sisters of Mercy and Irish Christian Brothers teaching in their Irish Australian schools. If this be true, there must have been (and still must be) many more Irished Catholic schools in Oz than I had ever imagined. Whatever the truth in the past about this sectarian argument, it has had little relevance now for more than a generation. Yet even in the absence of linguistically subversive Irish nuns, Australians continue to ‘haitch’. We conducted a survey of the television programme Wheel of Fortuneover a period of some weeks, just to see how many of the participants were aitchers and how many were haitchers. The results: 40% aitched and 60% haitched. Was this healthy majority of haitch-prone players unrepresentative? Were they all blue-collar blokes and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts? Or were they a mixed bunch? What the survey points to, I think, is the fact that whereas in the past haitch may have been a sectarian marker, and then a social one, the situation is rapidly changing. Australians from a wide variety of backgrounds are haitchers these days.


What, then, may we conclude about all this haitchery? Will the sky fall in on us Henny Pennies as more and more Aussies haitch? Will haitch persist as a shibboleth in Australian society? I have no doubt that some people will continue to condemn those who say haitch. The Oxford Companion to the English Languagenotes that while the letter H is generally called ‘aitch’, it is ‘sometimes’ called ‘haitch’ in Irish English and Australian English. All the evidence to hand suggests that ‘sometimes’ is rapidly becoming ‘commonly’. It is just possible that within a generation haitch will triumph in Australian English. Could it do for Australia what ‘fush and chups’ has done for New Zealand? The jury is still out, but the numbers are stacking up against the Aitchers. John Niland, methinks, will have the last laugh.