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There's only one h in aitch.

John Robert Brown

There is an increasing number of people who pronounce the letter H as 'haitch'. This irritating usage isn't restricted to the confessedly uneducated. Frequently it's the opposite case; daily I hear people employed in tertiary education who discuss Haitch-E students, and the Haitch-N-D qualification. A friend's GP refers to Haitch-R-T. These slips tell us that not only have the offenders been poorly taught, but that they haven't listened carefully to good speakers, and have never searched for aitch in the dictionary.

Why do they do this, when there is no such word as haitch? It's not as though the introduction of haitch is because of laziness. Aitch is a lot easier to say than haitch. Could it be a mistaken sense of refinement, a concern not to drop any aitches, and therefore an assumption that this letter of the alphabet must begin with itself? Probably, but as a theory it doesn't bear inspection. Think of see, el em, en, double-you, ex or wye, and banish the thought that H must begin with an aitch. A more convincing theory is that haitch stems from Australia or Ireland, where this mispronunciation is even more prevalent than in the UK. Nevertheless, it's still wrong. There's only one aitch in aitch.

Whatever the correct theory, it's likely that those who put an H before aitch have never been corrected. One observer claims that some perpetrators are so certain that their pronunciation is right that they will happily wager money on it. When a dictionary is consulted, giving the correct spelling of aitch, they argue that the word-book is wrong! Because their teacher had taught them to pronounce aitch with an H, it must be correct.

There are two possibilities that concern me. The first is that schoolchildren and students will hear this new word 'haitch', and assume that teacher (or administrator) knows best, and begin to pronounce the unwanted extra aitch. Obviously, this has already happened.

The second possibility relates to those who already know better. Their respect for users of the 'haitch' pronunciation is undermined. After all, if someone (e.g. a tutor) doesn't know how to spell and pronounce something as basic as the eighth letter of the alphabet, how can a student trust that person's specialist subject knowledge? Already I see this happening, and the damage to the respect in which the transgressor is held is particularly noticeable among overseas students studying in Britain. German, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian students have impressive language skills, and it isn't an exaggeration to say that some of them use English grammar and vocabulary better than their native- English administrators and lecturers. The don't say haitch, and on more than one occasion I have seen them puzzled - and amused - by those who do. What saddens me is that we may be witnessing a permanent change. When those who should be setting a good example are doing something the new (wrong) way, the process of change would seem to be well established.

What action can be taken? I think it right to draw attention to this phenomenon, but it is even more important to take action to limit its further spread. To correct students is fairly easy. To correct colleagues, however nicely one does it, is to risk offending them. Here the broadcasting media could be powerful allies. The power of radio and television is so great that it would be quite possible to initiate a debate or campaign to draw attention to the possibility of aitch becoming extinct. A mention in a pop song, chat show, Eastenders or The Archers could work wonders. All that is required is the co-operation of a producer or script writer.

This piece first appeared in the Journal of the Queen's English Society, Quest, number 79, August 2001.
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