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Lingofile Blog

Lingofile is here to appeal to your passion for language. Professor Kate Burridge posts musings about language - please join the discussion below.
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Dr Seuss, haitch and The Great Australian Spelling Bee

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Like Dr Seuss’ Star-Belly Sneetches and Plain-Belly Sneetches, there are two types of creatures — those who have h at the start of the word they use for the 8th letter of the alphabet, and those who have “none upon thars”.

That aspirate’s not so big. It’s really so small

You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.

But it does — as some reactions to the The Great Australian Spelling Bee have recently been demonstrating.
Venise Alstergren writes in The Age  “each child pronounced the letter “H” as “haitch” instead of “aitch”, a sure way to display ignorance. Why are teachers encouraging the misuse of the language”? Another asks “[a]re we to have yet another generation of children mispronouncing this letter. It sounds so uneducated to me”.


The pronunciation of this letter name has become a shibboleth — a linguistic marker that indicates identity. The use of shibboleths is both to include and exclude. Like belly stars, they serve to mark members of the same group and reject those who don’t belong (and of course it’s the ones with the social power who set the standards for whether belly stars are going to be "in" or "out"). In-group favouritism leads to value judgements. Ways of speaking become “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, “superior” or “inferior”. Aitch gets the stamp of approval, and haitch is denounced.

The best kind of people are people without!

All this is part of the universal use of language to distinguish different social groups or classes. The early association of haitch with Irish Catholic Education probably explains the original disapproval. And shibboleths die hard.

But there’s a nice little irony to all this — the word aitch violates another linguistic shibboleth, that of h-dropping. Like most of our letter names, aitch comes from the medieval French (hacheaxe’), so shares its origin with hatchet and even the hash in hash tag. The Romans pronounced h, but the French were h-droppers. So when the letter name entered English (after the Norman Conquest), it was h-less.

Compare aitch to words like hotel, hospital and herb. When we stole these from French, they would also have been h-less. So the modern American usage that drops the aspirate in herb and occasionally also hotel stems from this time — an herb and an hotel is historically accurate.  

But there’s yet another little wrinkle here. Up until the mid-1700s, h-dropping didn’t raise an eyebrow. Even linguistic fusspots could be heard dropping theirs. It was quite posh. (This is why in conservative texts like the King James Bible you might read of “an hairy man” or “an harlot”.) But then came one of these curious social reversals you get in language change. Aitches were suddenly back “in” and h-dropping was “out”. Kind of like belly stars really.

The new regard for h would have coincided with the spread of education and increasing importance of writing over speech. Spelling obsession saw the return of aspirates to the pronunciation of French words like hotel, hospital and herb — and also the appearance of h-intruders. If you’re told that dropping h is a bad thing, then in an effort to improve your speech you might overdo it (hinnocent for innocent). The most famous example of h-hypercorrection is probably Eliza Doolittle’s “in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly hever happen”.

Perhaps Aitch-Belly Sneetches would feel a little less queasy about haitch if they thought of it as having historical merit. Besides, there’s a kind of inner sensibleness to the pronunciation. Letter names do generally contain the consonants they represent (double-U is an exception — and neither wubble-U or double-woo has yet caught on!).

David Crystal has predicted that in this century we’ll see a new open-mindedness in people’s linguistic thinking — a new egalitarian linguistic era where ‘eternal tolerance’ will replace the old “eternal vigilance”. I haven’t yet seen much evidence of this new linguistic good will, but I like the thought.

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

Kate Burridge for LIngofile

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).