How to Pronounce the Letter H

Is it Aitch or Haitch? Aytch or Haytch? What is the correct way to say the 8th letter of the alphabet?

Oh dear, here we go. This is an argument that always risks upsetting a huge percentage of the general populace, not to mention friends and family (-shh)!

Today we’re going to examine the proper way to say the letter H.

A simple, useful little letter that has somehow become embroiled in a raging war over issues of pronunciation. I’m looking at you Idris Elba (swoon) and your annoying ads for Sky HD .

H is Aitch

Simple as.

The correct pronunciation is aitch. And that’s also how you spell it. ‘AITCH’.  (You know, for when you wanna play it in scrabble.)

The Oxford English Dictionary (along with many others) describes it super simply:

aitch – n. the name of the letter H.

So there we have it. All that’s left to do now is convince the other 50% of the population (and Idris)  that ‘haitch’ is wrong. It’s a made up word. It doesn’t exist. Simple enough, huh?

Well, no actually. Anything but simple. Gawd’s sake,  even (some) teachers pronounce it incorrectly these days, so it’s little wonder that the use of haitch has proliferated. People think it’s right. They’re even taught it’s right. And to put them right seems, well, a bit rude. So it just carries on. Even the BBC doesn’t want to correct its stars these days. Points of View is regularly inundated with complaints about presenters mis-pronouncing h, but apparently the BBC is loath to advise unless specifically asked. In which case they would say it’s aitch.

Little wonder then, that h has become such a common cause of irritation. The comedian David Mitchell, an infamous dogmatic on points of grammar, wrote a brilliant sketch summing up the unstoppable tsunami of rage that can take control of the pedant’s mind when confronted by haitch. First broadcast during episode 1, series 4 of That Mitchell and Webb Look, pity the poor office lackey who creates the acronym haitch, haitch, haitch. He meets a swift and unfortunate end. (See the clip here, colloquially re-titled Grammar Nazi.)

Some Common Misconceptions About H:

“Aitch is what posh people say, so I’m going to say haitch.”

Wrong. Aitch is not posh. It’s just correct.

“I say haitch because I’m from the North. Aitch is what southerners say.”

Wrong. This is not an issue of the North/South divide. Aitch is simply correct.

“Haitch is what I was taught and it’s what I’m going to say.”

Fair enough, as long as you know you’re wrong.

Why do People Say Haitch?

The reason h is such a widely mispronounced letter is possibly because dropping your aitches is such a well-known grammatical error. At the risk of going a tiny bit ‘My Fair Lady’ on you all (no singing, I promise!), the cockney stereotype knocks off the aitch altogether. As in “the train stops at ’enley, ’averstock and ‘ereford.” There’s also a tendency to insert an h where it isn’t required – as in “we hardly hever run out of happles”. This over-correcting is possibly what led to the invention of haitch.

And by the way, many will argue that h should be pronounced haitch because words like hangover, hotshot and Hampstead Heath all begin with a ‘huh’ sound. But what of hour and honourable? They don’t begin with a ‘huh’, they begin with an ‘oh’ sound.

No, the correct pronunciation of the letter h is aitch. And even if the English-speaking world eventually comes to accept ‘haitch’ (god forbid!), it will always grate on those of us who know it should be aitch.

English is constantly evolving, constantly in flux. So it’s true that one day haitch may become acceptable. Lots of words have changed over time, like schedule (commonly pronounced these days in the American style ‘skedule’ rather than the more British ‘shoop’, ‘shoop’ ‘schedule’). But they don’t seem such an irritation. No, truly nothing produces silent grimaces like the dreaded haitch does.

Is there an argument raging in your household too? Do you disagree about the way to pronounce h? If so, please leave a message in the comment box. The debate continues…

 

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