Why is the letter H so divisive?
Why is the letter H so divisive?

The letter that divides a nation

THE Australian vernacular is a divisive beast.

Depending on who you're speaking to, you can get ripped apart for saying "potato cake" instead of "scallop", "drinking fountain" instead of "bubbler" and "Blake Garvey is great!" instead of "Blake Garvey is a f***ing tosser!"

But there's one word - nay, a mere letter - that divides us so subtly you may not even be aware of its infuriating power.

The letter H.

Do you pronounce it "aitch" or "haitch"? Growing up, you may have been reprimanded for using the breathy latter.

"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," Susan Butler writes in her book The Aitch Factor. "Haitch is logical but not socially acceptable. Again history plays its part."

But which way is actually correct?


Why is the letter ‘H’ so damn controversial?
Why is the letter ‘H’ so damn controversial?


This isn't a recent phenomenon - according to Michael Rosen, author of Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story, people were getting snooty about the letter H as far as back as ancient Rome.

The letter traces its origins to the medieval French hache, but the French act of dropping the sound in words (think "an historian" as opposed to "a historian") didn't take off in other cultures.

In ancient Rome, pronouncing every "H" was the civilised thing to do.

At the end of the 19th century, The New York Times described people who drop their H as "h-less socialists".

Even by the mid-20th century, dropping Hs was just not the "polite society" thing to do. In Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series, set in an upper-class English boarding school in the 1950s, there's a section where one girl mocks another's father for his uncouth behaviour - as characterised by his "H-dropping".

"Jo once boasted that there wasn't anything her father couldn't buy. June had enquired whether he had enough money to buy himself a few hundred Hs.

"Jo had never forgiven June for that. For the first time she had realised that her father's loud-voiced remarks were made all the worse by the way he continually dropped his Hs, and his curious lapses in grammar."

Historical context also plays an important part here. In Northern Ireland, people pronounced the letter differently in accordance with their religious faith.

According to Rosen, "aitch" was the Protestant way while "haitch" was Catholic, and "getting it wrong could be a dangerous business".

But what makes it so contentious in Australia specifically?

One theory goes that it's because the "haitch" pronunciation was associated with Irish Catholic immigrants who came here. Because they were typically working-class and associated with a lower level of education, this pronunciation was thus deemed of "lower quality".

Macquarie Dictionary notes there is "only anecdotal evidence" to support this. But even though the theory is unconfirmed, the eighth letter of the alphabet continues to carry a certain all-powerful stigma.

What's ironic in all this is that dropping one's Hs is historically considered a lower-class thing to do, yet the "educated" pronunciation of "aitch" entails exactly that.

So, let's get to the bottom of it - what's the "right" way to say the letter?

Speaking English today, the correct thing to do is pronounce all your opening "H" sounds - historian, hotel, hammock, hiccough, highway. The only exception? The letter "H" itself, which is correctly pronounced "aitch".

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. The difference is slight, and it's not like it makes you impossible to understand.

Besides, it's kind of ludicrous when you consider all the things we let slide; we're less touchy about "schedule" (is that "skedjool" or "schedjool"), "youse" (which is technically wrong, but extremely Australian), and even the letter Z ("zee" or "zed"?).

'Ow bloody confusing.