Tuesday, 19 June 2012

ha ha

A member of the public wrote to the Spelling Society, of which I am President.

I have recently taken issue with the BBC for concluding that it is now 'acceptable' for H to be pronounced Haitch. This appears to be on the guidance of Professor John Wells and on the basis that it is commonly used.
Samuel Johnson's first dictionary ascribed spellings to all letters of the alphabet, including AITCH for H.
I would be interested to hear therefore why you seem to be perpetrating this peculiar distortion as opposed to upholding the correct pronunciation.
She subsequently explained
I intially took up this issue after writing to Heart Radio about one of its presenters using “Haitch” and was told that this was because the BBC said it was an “attested legitimate variant”. The BBC in reply led me to Professor Wells and thus your organisation. It may be ‘popular’ but it is still wrong. My ambition is merely for institutions such as the BBC, and indeed yourselves, to hold the line on this letter, and advise against this awful and ignorant pronunciation which is now spreading.

I demurred at the apparent misrepresentation of what I had contributed to the debate.

”This appears to be on the guidance of Professor John Wells and on the basis that it is commonly used.”

I have never given any such “guidance”. I have never recommended “haitch” as the name of the letter. What I did do was carry out a survey into people’s preferences in the UK, which revealed that only 16% of respondents prefer “haitch” over “aitch”, while 84% prefer “aitch” (like you, me, and the Chair of the Spelling Society). However, younger speakers are more likely than older speakers to prefer “haitch”, so this pronunciation is on the increase. The details are to be found in my Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Pearson Education, 2008).
You might like to read two or three entries in my blog: for 19 Dec 2007 and 28 Dec 2007 and for 2 Nov 2010, with the comments left on the latter.

Please do not spread false reports about what I supposedly said.

With hindsight, my reply was perhaps too prickly. But it seemed to me that the lady who had written the letter wanted to shoot the messenger because she did not like the message. My pronunciation preference poll had revealed that a minority of British people — a growing minority, but still a minority — prefer to name the letter heɪtʃ, and therefore may (if they think about the matter at all) consider this to be the correct name, and the traditional eɪtʃ to be antiquated, slovenly, or indeed wrong.

In LPD I included a note.

The form heɪtʃ is standard in Irish English, but traditionally not in BrE or AmE. It is, however, spreading in BrE.

You could indeed argue that on the basis of these polling figures I was wrong in LPD to affix the sign § (“non-RP”) to the heɪtʃ form. In doing so, though, I gave the lie to the Telegraph’s jibe that I ‘breathed no word of criticism of those who did [use a minority-preference variant]’.

But no. I can have my preferences and prejudices as much as anyone else. From time to time they no doubt show through in what I write. But I am enough of a scientist to have respect for the facts, and to wish to investigate to the best of my ability what the facts are.

And the fact is that, despite any feelings I may have on the matter, despite the dislike, nay loathing, that other people may feel towards new pronunciations of particular words or towards sound changes in general, there is little any of us can do about it.

In an EFL context, it is perfectly reasonable for learners to look to me (and other academic linguists) for advice on what is the correct pronunciation for them to use. In the same way I have never hesitated, as a language learner, to ask speakers of German ‘Wie sagt man das? Was ist die Aussprache?’, or a speaker of Welsh ‘Ydw i’n ynganu hynny’n iawn?’ when confronted with a written word that I am not sure about. In an acting context, it is perfectly reasonable for drama students and actors to seek the facts about how a given character would be likely to speak. In a speech-and-language-therapy context, it was always part of my professional duties to educate SLT students about the facts of ordinary English pronunciation and to combat some of the myths.

But it’s not my duty, as an academic linguist, to lay down the law about how people should pronounce their own native language.

Yes, if some actor in a historical drama were to put the pronunciation heɪtʃ in the mouth of an upper-class character, we can point out that it would be an anachronism (like the initial-stressed contribute heard from a titled character in Downton Abbey on television recently).

Yes, we can complain if presenters of classical music lack the knowledge to make a reasonable attempt at Italian or German names. The BBC rightly requires of its newsreaders great carefulness in the pronunciation of proper names, including those from other languages, and maintains a Pronunciation Unit to advise them by supplying relevant information.

But with ordinary English words that are not proper names? Used by disc jockeys on a popular music radio station? There’s really nothing we can do. Even writing to the Spelling Society won’t help. (What’s it got to do with spelling, anyway?)

We just have to get over it.

_ _ _

I shall be busy with other matters tomorrow. Next posting: 21 June.

83 comments:

  1. Seemingly it's a social marker in Australia too, where "even in the absence of linguistically subversive Irish nuns, Australians continue to 'haitch'".

    I think you were entitled to be a bit prickly. There's nothing ignorant about pronouncing it "haitch". (Being Irish, I've always done so.) But there is something ignorant about assuming it's wrong. It's a pity people get so worked up about these everyday aspects of human variation.

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    1. It simply is wrong. It is an altogether different matter that English is the empire of descriptivism and allows barbarisms to become integral parts of correct language use. I just love the way you've turned this around, made your own view the proper one and slapped the person who thought otherwise. Horrendous.

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    2. Perhaps you'd like to come to my house and tell my wife (brought up in Dublin) that she "simply is wrong" in saying "haitch". I'd suggest you wear a motor cycle helmet, though, as you'll be, quite rightly, battered around the head for your presumption.

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    3. Duchesse, *linguistics* is the empire od descriptivism. On the other hand, prescriptivism is the empire of ignorant bigotry. Also, there is no such a thing as "barbarisms".

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    4. How long has this been the case in Australia? There were some Irish migrants back in the original colonisation, so it's possible that heɪtʃ has been around since then.

      heɪtʃ is certainly becoming more widespread in Britain. I wonder whether it's been established for some time in areas that absorbed large-scale migration from Ireland (e.g. Liverpool, Manchester, Middlesbrough). As rural accents die out and urban accents spread, this might have led to heɪtʃ spreading into areas where it was previously unknown.

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  2. In Ireland "haitch" is universal. When I moved here in 1989 it was one of the first changes I made to my speech, because my address was in Irish and had seven h's in it, and spelling it out over the phone I quickly learned that if you don't say "haitch" they don't understand you.

    I like it when I am visiting my relatives in the States and they look at me funny when I say "haitch". But the looks when I say "Amn't I?" are even better.

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    1. Oh, is "amn't" Irish, too? I thought it was mainly Scottish (and it is one of those Scotticisms I've adopted in my ten years here).
      As for haitch, my stepchildren (aged 14 and 12) consider that the only acceptable form, in spite of what my wife and I tell them.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. [I deleted my first posting of this comment because I realised I'd written "it's" for "its". Oops! Must be a sign of creeping moral turpitude on my part. Does anyone know of a kindly priest of the Church of Correct English to whom I can unburden my soul?]

    The tone and content of the member of the public's letter/email speaks for itself and is its own worst/best counterargument. The question is, why did the Spelling Society and the President waste their time with it? If ever there was an old dog who could not and would not be taught new tricks, this correspondent is it.

    I wouldn't at all be surprised if future generations end up with completely aitch-ful aitches and consider aitch-less aitches to be the height of vulgarity. It wouldn't bother me at all. Quite understandable that people feel the name of the letter should contain the corresponding sound and that an aitch would be added because of aitch-dropping paranoia.

    Maybe it's just the time, place and background I grew up in, but this is a non-issue for me. I'm an aitch-less aitch man by the way...

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  5. See the OED entry for an etymology of why the name is historically 'aitch' rather than 'haitch'.
    "… The name aitch, which is now so remote from any connection with the sound, goes back through Middle English ache to Old French ache = Spanish ache, Italian acca, pointing to a late Latin *accha, *ahha, or *aha, exemplifying the sound; cf. Italian effe, elle, emme, etc. (The earlier Latin name was ha.) …"
    Essentially the letter-name 'ha'for H had collided with the letter-name 'a'for A after the loss of the aspirate in the later empire. The postulated Late Latin names given were no doubt due to the same pressure that makes English-speakers pronounce the Scots word 'loch' as LOCK, and the initial a- in the new letter-name would have avoided confusion with the letter-name 'ka for K.
    There is also the pressure to give the letter the sound it is normally associated with, viz, 'h'.

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  6. I'd say that was a pretty restrained reply to such an aggressive and ignorant message. I thought it might go on to point out that the BBC is not in the business of "concluding that [such and such] is now 'acceptable'". The Pron Unit is there to offer advice to anyone who bothers to consult it, but no pronunciation police patrol the corridors of BH to catch out offenders and set them straight, as many seem to believe.

    However, as for "the BBC rightly requires of its newsreaders great carefulness in the pronunciation of proper names, including those from other languages" -- really? Certainly it ought to, perhaps it used to, but I see no evidence that it does. On the contrary, ignorance and casual disrespect seem widespread.

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  7. Apologies for starting a new comment; the Reply link doesn't work in my browser.

    @Duchesse: I've never understood why people who say things like "haitch is just wrong" are happy to accept all linguistic changes in the fifty thousand years up to, say, 1950, but none thereafter. Why was it OK to start saying "isn't" instead of "is not", or "does" instead of "doth"? If you'd been around while those changes were happening would you have said they were just wrong too?

    If in 100 years' time everyone says "haitch", and "aitch" is an archaism, will you still think it's wrong? (Assuming we're all still alive, that is.)

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    1. There is a plethora of issues here. Were those changes accepted, for example, or were they imposed by the general public, uninterested in the nuances of language? Is it OK if I all of a sudden start calling John Wells dʒɪn wɵlz. It is a ludicrous pronunciation, with no foundation whatsoever. Yet who cares, suddenly I decide to do so, perhaps out of ignorance, 'no one taught me', or perhaps because I want to start an idiotic fashion. 5 years into the future and the mammoth portion of the (younger) people starts following my example. What do you say to stop it? Do you say anything? Or perhaps just 'deal with it'? 'Oh, you know, so many things have started as sheer silliness and then they caught on, you just have to accept it.' OK, I will, but then why do I need a dictionary if I can pronounce word any way I see fit?

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    2. Votre altesse,

      I hereby apologize upon behalf of countless ignorant generations of the "general public" for "imposing" that barbarism, the English language, on you.

      Please feel free to go back to Proto-Indo-European.

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    3. I am sure that in 100 years time, British speakers will be looking down on the stupid Americans who don't know how to pronounce 'haitch' properly.

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    4. Just like "herb" today.

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    5. There's a difference between accepting change and accepting every idiosyncratic individual language variation.

      And, as has been pointed out, the haitch pronunciation is not something new in the English language, but simply something spreading.

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    6. Is it OK if I all of a sudden start calling John Wells dʒɪn wɵlz.

      No, he specifically emphasised the importance of correct pronunciation of proper names, which you seem to have either deliberately or carelessly ignored in choosing your example.

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    7. How, pray, is the principle of "correct pronunciation of proper names" worded, if at all?

      John maintains that, in the BBC, the principle is even extended to "foreign" (non-English) names.

      It does not seem to be.

      Ex-president Sarkozy was not infrequently given as "SarCOSY" (with mistaken stress on the penultima, as if of someone "cosy").

      How often have I not heard the internationally celebrated film director (Ingmar) Bergman pronounced differently from the Swedish pronunciation (approximately "Berryman" and therefore none too difficult, even for the BBC)?

      There was, likewise, an excruciating variety of pronunciations for Medvedev, the president of the Russian Federation until earlier this year (and now Prime Minister).

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    8. Since French, I'm told, has no word stress, how is stress on any particular syllable of Sarkozy mistaken?

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    9. You have been told an approximation, which would serve you ill if ever you came into contact with actual spoken French.

      Stress, in French, is theoretically PHRASAL. This entails LEXICAL stress on the last syllable of any given phrase, be it a name.

      You will here that syllabic stress as soon as "Nicolas Sarkozy" is pronounced by a native French speaker.

      It is of no consequence whether you call it phrasal or lexical.

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    10. It is when speaking the words in English, since French phrasal stress rules aren't part of English.

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    11. My entire point is that English rules are inapplicable - as indeed they SHOULD be - in the pronunciation of non-English names.

      Also, my belated apology for having written "here" though I meant "hear".

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    12. I disagree. When speaking English, English rules do apply to a certain degree, even when using a name that comes from another language.

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    13. Your disagreement here is with John, not me (as, for reasons of routine, you think).

      It would be interesting to know the hitherto hidden sense of "rules apply to a certain degree", but I suspect there is little hope of having it revealed.

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    14. Kim

      If French stress is phrasal, it makes sense to produce different forms of Sarkozy in French phrases and English phrases. While he was President, English broadcasters seldom referred to him as Nicolas Sarkozy. It would be interesting to analyse these references — I wouldn't be surprised if the stress proved to be more authentic than in Sarkozy and President Sarkozy.

      We live in a linguistic democracy and the overwhelming vote is for an Anglicised pronunciation of the director Bergman. The film actress Ingrid seems to have been quite content with the way we say her name. Ditto the international, US resident, Czech by birth tennis star Marina ̩nævrætɪˈləʊvə, the politician from the Shetlands Norman læˈmɒnt and the Australian Prime Misnister from a Scottish family Robert ˈmɛnzɪz. I can't think of a famous Inglis but I did know someone who was happy to be called ˈɪŋ ̩glɪs among non-Scots without even leaving Scotland.

      The reason people struggled with Medvedev was principally the sheer difficulty in articulating VOWEL + dv + VOWEL when neither vowel is 'heavy' — i.e. both long and stressed. Besides, nobody gets the quality of Russian unstressed vowels right because they're genuinely difficult. If you hear a Russian speaker say Медведев without understanding this, it's beyond all but the best mimics to reproduce from hearing alone.

      The stress on Russian surnames with the same endings is unpredictable from the spelling (even in the Cyrillic spelling). Even today it's extremely rare for most English speakers to hear a native-speaker pronunciation of a Russian name. Among long-familiar names, nobody pronounces Tchaikovsky particularly well (in terms of authenticity) and everybody gets the stress 'wrong' in Moussorgsky.

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    15. David,

      Lots of interesting observations there.

      I was prompted, however, by two utterances included here.

      1. from John: "the BBC rightly requires of its newsreaders great carefulness in the pronunciation of proper names, including those from other languages"

      2. from Alan: "he (John) specifically emphasised the importance of correct pronunciation of proper names"

      Both of these statements are prescriptive rather than descriptive, containing words such as "rightly" and "importance".

      Unresolved, in spite of your elucidations, are the following:

      A. The harmful characterization of French as a language with no lexical stress. As soon as one word (or one name) is pronounced by actual French speakers, the stress will fall unfailingsly on the last syllable. If the BBC stays with its rule (deemed "right" by John), it has to stress the final -y in all three cases: "Nicolas Sarkozy", "(ex-)president Sarkozy" and "Sarkozy".
      (As you know, the name Sarközy is Hungarian in origin. If I am correctly informed, the initial syllable would be stressed in Hungarian. Even such a stress is much preferable to the "-cosy-" version.)

      B. Applied to Ingmar Bergman, statements 1. and 2. above (John and Alan, respectively) do not seem to favour an anglicized pronunciation. It is neither here nor there if Ingrid Bergman the actress has "contented" herself with an anglicized mispronunciation.

      I can, of course, see the point you are making - but my comment arose from what had been written in this blog.

      Also, as we all know, most people are generally "content" with being mentioned at all, and would be timid rather than assertive in questions of proper name pronunciation.

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    16. Kim

      1. from John: "the BBC rightly requires of its newsreaders great carefulness in the pronunciation of proper names, including those from other languages"

      2. from Alan: "he (John) specifically emphasised the importance of correct pronunciation of proper names"


      I agree with what John actually said. I don't agree with what Alan says he said.

      Thank you for the (to me) new information on the 'native' pronunciations of Sarkozy and Bergman. I will bear both observations in mind 'with great carefulness' — but I'm afraid I'll be allowing other considerations to outweigh them.

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    17. I don't think you can pronounce Sarkozy properly in English. Given the vowel reduction that occurs in unaccented syllables, your choices are probably going to be ˈsɑːrkəzi, sɑːrˈkəʊzi, sɑːrkəˈziː, none of which sounds right. Given that French has no lexical stress, I suspect that French speakers might prefer getting all the vowels as correct as possible to accenting the wrong syllable.

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    18. I hear /sɑrkoʊˈziː/ often enough in the US media. For example:

      http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rss/media/2012/05/07/20120507_euroelection1.mp3

      around 0:30

      Not an exact match, but pretty close.

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  8. Getting back on topic, in Northern Ireland the name of this letter is one of the very few ways you can identify Catholics and Protestants from their speech: Catholics say haitch and Protestants say aitch. I suppose this is a result of the teaching patterns in the primary schools, which are sadly still mostly segregated.

    This is probably a more reliable indicator linguistic indicator of ethnic origin than the more famous one using the name of NI's second-largest city, which is complicated by local origin, media guidelines, political sensitivity, and various politeness rules.

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    1. Does this trend continue throughout the Republic of Ireland? What would a Protestant in Dublin say?

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    2. IIRC the ones I've met say aitch, but there aren't many of them around anyway.

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  9. @Duchesse: Were those changes accepted, for example, or were they imposed by the general public, uninterested in the nuances of language?

    All language changes are imposed by the general public, uninterested in the nuances of language. There are a few cases in history that break that general rule (off the top of my head I can only think of examples in Turkish and Modern Hebrew, where experts dreamed up clever changes which then caught on) but in my examples above the change was definitely driven by the man on the street, just as with "(h)aitch".

    You could indeed mispronounce Professor Wells' name if you wanted to and there's nothing anyone could do about it. I think we'd all have a good case for saying that you were wrong though - unless and until enough people began sincerely and un-selfconsciously using your new pronunciation.

    Of course that's not a very good example as it's someone's name, so in this case there's an authority (the professor himself) who's entitled to set everyone straight. But such an authority doesn't usually exist and you should accept that.

    @Ed: I'd be surprised if the trend did apply to Dublin. It's a feature of the schooling system in NI so all Dubliners (I imagine) would say "haitch". Can any Church of Ireland Dubliners confirm?

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  10. @Duchesse: Just to answer your point about the dictionary, which I missed in my mast reply.

    Do you think that dictionary writers invent the languages we speak and then babies learn the languages by reading dictionaries?

    It's the other way round: Languages develop over hundreds of years, and then dictionary writers use the facts of how a language is actually spoken to write their dictionaries. As each language changes, the dictionaries need to be kept up to date. I think it's clear from Prof. Wells' blog that this ongoing updating process is a considerable task.

    The point of a dictionary giving a pronunciation for a common word such as the name of a letter is to give guidance to foreigners. It's not to define how native speakers should speak their own language.

    Of course, for unfamiliar words, native speakers do sometimes use dictionaries in this way too, but not for the letters of the alphabet. (If you didn't know the alphabet by heart, how would you know what page to look on?)

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  11. Resistance to change is far from uniform. A fossilised pronunciation may be based on emotional attachment, but eɪtʃ is, i think, rather different.

    Of course, it's anomalous. Logically, H should be named hi: — since ɛh is unsayable (for us). But heɪtʃ is not exactly logical We don't say beɪtʃ, keɪtʃ, deɪtʃ.

    I really believe there's an element of If we're going to be illogical, let's be totally illogical!. For many of us outside Ireland and Irish-influence education systems heɪtʃ is a half-hearted compromise.

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  12. @David: There's no point in trying to find logic in these things. For what it's worth, heɪtʃ fits the pattern of bi:, dʒeɪ, keɪ, si:, zed and kju:, namely that the letter name is a monosyllable beginning with the sound of the relevant consonant.

    But I don't think heɪtʃ is motivated by logic exactly - more analogy. Or more likely it results from the reanalysis of eɪtʃ as a H-dropped variant of underlying heɪtʃ, and the h was then added by hypercorrection.

    Perhaps one day W will be called wu:.

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    1. At least in Scotland, but probably in all of the UK, children in the early years of primary school call W /wə/, so I think that will eventually become the "proper" name, not /wu:/.
      Is it perhaps also easier to go from /hə/ to /heɪtʃ/ than to /eɪtʃ/, I wonder?

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    2. In fact, the naming scheme of the Romans (possibly derived in part from the Etruscans) was pretty logical:

      the vowels/semivowels had their characteristic long sound:

      A /a:/
      E /e:/
      I /i:/
      O /o:/
      V /u:/

      the major stops followed one pattern:

      B /be:/
      C /ke:/
      D /de:/
      G /ge:/
      P /pe:/
      T /te:/

      the continuants another:

      F /ɛf/
      L /ɛl/
      M /ɛm/
      N /ɛn/
      R /ɛr/
      S /ɛs/

      the uncommon stops K, Q were differentiated from C by use of different vowels:

      K /ka:/
      Q /ku:/

      (The regularity of this scheme has been lost in English because of the palatization of /k/ in the Romance languages, leading to English /C/ being pronounced /si:/ rather than /ki:/).

      Even in Roman times, however, H was an odd man out, since /ɛh/ would have been no more pronounceable for Latin-speakers than for contemporary English-speakers. Hence the unusual name of (presumably) /aha/

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    3. I think your suggestion of /heɪtʃ/ as a hypercorrection is a good one. Its increased currency has coincided with the decline of H-dropping in England. However, can this theory stand up in Scotland? Judged by these comments, /heɪtʃ/ is spreading there as well, yet H-dropping has always been very limited in Scotland.

      When I was at uni, I met a girl from Leicestershire who said that she was taught to say /heɪtʃ/ so that she wouldn't drop her Hs.

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    4. At least in Scotland, but probably in all of the UK, children in the early years of primary school call W /wə/, so I think that will eventually become the "proper" name, not /wu:/.

      Yes, but by the same token, young children will use a schwa in the name of every consonant, making even more letters sound similar than in standard pronunciation. I would at least hope that it doesn't catch on in the older population. It's the exact opposite of the use of alpha, bravo, charlie... for clearer disambiguation, which do seem to be becoming increasingly widely known (perhaps because of the increasing numbers of telephone call centres), and which, who knows, may one day become the standard names for the letters. Mind you, there's a certain irony that that alphabet exists to avoid confusion but is often confusingly called the "phonetic alphabet".

      That said, I recall that in Esperanto (which I dabbled in some years ago) there seems to be a strong preference for using the original version of the alphabet, in which the names for all the consonants are just formed by adding an o (bo, co, etc), rather than a recognised alternative that has the o replaced by a in a selection of these. Maybe John Wells could comment further, as he is an expert on Esperanto.

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  13. … and let's not raise the spectre of "zee" for "zed" ...

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  14. @Terry: in fact the zee--zed comparison is very apropos. The first person to say "zee" rather than "zed" was Just Plain Wrong, just as someone who calls K "kee" would be wrong. As long as a novel form is the independent coinage of an underinformed individual, it may be categorised as an error; the individual will correct it if made aware of its status (or at least, if they choose to retain it, will do so as a conscious affectation). But as the novel form is propagated in a community, it becomes harder to label it an error (even a "widespread error") and it must instead be a regional variant.

    There are some changes which are the product of gradual infinitesimal drift, and others which result from (one or more) quantum leaps. Diachronaically, one might object more to the latter type of change by labelling the jumps as errors; but synchronically the two processes have the same result.

    I don't doubt that "haitch" was originally an error in Ireland, 200 years ago; but the error is not worth regretting, much less reversing.

    I don't think "(h)aitch" has sectarian shibboleth status in the Republic. My genteel Catholic mother says "aitch", but I didn't even notice this till I was an adult. If someone "sounds English" they are probably Protestant, though not conversely.

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    1. mollymooly

      The first person to say "zee" rather than "zed" was Just Plain Wrong, just as someone who calls K "kee" would be wrong.

      Yes but one caught on and the other hasn't — and I think there's a reason.
      • As vp reminds us, the letters representing continuants all (with one interesting exception) start their names with ɛ.
      • Only four of those continuants form VOICED/VOICELESS pairs
      So the invention of zi: allows the emergence of this set replete with associations of similarity and difference:

      Z...zi:..........S...ɛs
      V...vi:..........F...ɛf

      Several pressures resist the effect of total triumph over zɛd
      1. The general effect that stems from learning the twenty-six names at a very early age before a conscious understanding of what they represent.
      2. The specific effect of the exceptional
      C...si:
      which now in English corresponds to the /s/ sound and the /k/ sound
      (Now in the sense of 'later than 1066')
      3.The feeling that letters Z/S are systematically paired is lessened by the fact that S so often represents /z/.

      But zi: succeeded despite these pressures because it was less than 'plain wrong' — it captured something that helped the whole set of twenty-six names to make a bit more sense. It may not even have been a mistake; just possibly someone thought it was an improvement. (I'm sure I've read that some early modern educationalists thought so — but zi: may well have been invented before they were writing.)

      I don't see how ki: could be seen as an equal improvement. OK it adds one to the body of PLOSIVE SOUND + i:, but that's a small benefit when set against the loss of the very district names si:, keɪ and kju:.

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    2. I can't imagine that a phonological analysis of naming patterns in the alphabet has much if any effect on how it is perceived and used by native English speakers.

      I'd also note that Zee has in fact overtaken Zed completely in the country with the largest population of native English speakers.

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    3. Learning the alphabet is a huge achievement because it comes so early in life. After all, twenty six-different names is a large learning load at that age, and associating each name with a shape adds twenty-six more demanding tasks. On top of it all you have to remember the names in a precise unalterable sequence. Moreover, it's a totally meaningless task with a purpose that you're too young to grasp — and which you can't imagine being revealed in the future as seen from your infant point of view.

      Such logic as there is provides the infant with analogies that help to learn the names. Historically, those analogies stem from ancient patterns that have quite a lot to do with Latin phonology. It isn't the phonology that provides the learnable patterns — but some of those phonological facts may come In handy when the child is learning to associate named letter-shapes with possible corresponding sounds.

      The population of native speakers in a country — or rather an educational area — is not relevant. Ireland has a relatively small population but has led the world in adopting heɪtʃ.

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    4. I still have my doubts regarding phonological properties. I haven't met many native English speakers, aside from linguists and students of Linguistics, who have any idea that voicing pairs exist, for example. Without explicit explanation of facts like this, is there any actual evidence that such patterns in the names of the letters of the alphabet as do exist are of any help at all to those tasked with learning it?

      Please ignore my comment about countries - I think I misread your first reply to be saying something that it actually wasn't.

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    5. I'm not suggesting for a moment that there's any conscious perception involved. The problem for an infant is that there are twenty-six names to be learned and then associated with shapes. Those names are meaningless and for the time being without any useful function — although the functions will be apparent after what will seem an eternity.

      Most important of all for the purposes of this discussion, the twenty-six names are much too similar. In fact, zɛd, ˈdʌbl̩ju:, a:(r) and eɪtʃ are easier to learn than the others because they're not easily confused with any other name. The rest of the names are monosyllabic — far too many of them (from the infant's point of view) of the pattern CONS+i: and an uncomfortably large number of the pattern ɛ+CONS.

      The Roman system, as vp reminded us, was to use the precursor of the former for letters corresponding to plosives and the precursor of the latter for letters corresponding to continuants. The possibly unintended consequences are that:

      • The plosive sounds we hear at the beginning of BCDGPT help the learning process — we feel no temptation to remember i:b, i:s, i:d etc.
      • The continuant sounds we hear at the end of FLMNSX help us not to remember ɛb, ɛd, ɛg, ɛp, ɛt or, indeed, ɛk.

      This patterning is messed up by
      • the k+CONS names for K and Q
      • the phonological history of words spelled with C in late Latin and the Romance languages
      • the upstart nature of letters J, V, Y and Z

      There was a serious dilemma with naming V once it was finally distinguished from U. If the ears of teachers had picked up the similarity with other continuant sounds, they would have gone for ɛv, and perhaps some did. But this is where I think the voiced-voiceless factor comes in: ɛv would sound much too much like ɛf. So V was grouped with the plosives.

      Z wasn't entirely the same. It was a letter that had been rare, rather than one slowly invented. There was a choice between incorporating it into the newly enlarged CONS+i: group and retaining the old Greek name. The advantage of the former is that it created those pairs of association: vi:~zi, ɛf~ɛz, vi:~ɛf, zi:~ɛs. This would help young brains learn a system — and the alphabet isn't learned until you've learned all twenty-six components of the system.

      [This contrasts with learning lexical words which involves both form and significance. It even contrasts with learning numbers:
      • Number-names can be meaningful in isolation before you learn the whole system.
      • The sequence explains itself early on when you start the process of counting.]

      Some medieval educators did, I'm sure, favour zi:, but in England and its neighbours the quirky old Greek name was felt to be pedagogically even more helpful.

      There were a couple more voiced/voiceless pairs of continuants, but the decisions were different.

      w~ʍ
      —The voiceless sound was never assigned a letter but always a digraph: hƿ, hw, qh, wh — the final representation being retained even in dialects without the sound.
      —The voiced sound was first assigned a non-Roman letter ƿ with a distinctive name wyn, then later a shape invented on the basis of V named 'double U'.

      ð~θ Non-Roman letters were assigned
      — Voiced ð took a name analogous to other continuants ɛð.
      — The voiceless sound was assigned a non-Roman letter þ with distinctive — and thus easily remembered — name 'thorn'. If that name had not existed, our ancestors might have plumped for ði: and ɛθ.

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    6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hwair

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    7. I can see why present-day typographers seize on the letter and its name. What disturbs me a tad is that Alcuin wasn't a Goth, nor can we be sure his source was a Gothic-speaker. Was hwair a name used by young Gothic-speakers learning the alphabet, or was it a name used by foreign observers like Alcuin?

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    8. The problem for an infant is that there are twenty-six names to be learned and then associated with shapes. Those names are meaningless and for the time being without any useful function — although the functions will be apparent after what will seem an eternity.

      I think you overestimate their inutility. My grandson (who just turned four) likes to spell out the letters and digits on any sign he sees, but most especially on the number plates of parked cars, perhaps because they are nicely placed at his height. I think for him knowing that F is named "eff" is on a par with knowing that I am named "Grampa", the colander he had on his head this morning is named "pot" (referring to a children's book he had read to him about a cat who wore a pot on her head), and the cat is named "Shadow". He neither knows nor needs to know that number-plate signs are random whereas other signs spell out something useful or interesting — all in good time.

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    9. I should add that his grip on which letter is named what is much firmer than his grip on the order of the letters. After all, they are just 26 of the hundreds (thousands?) of nouns he already knows and can use.

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    10. John Cowan

      Your grandson has already learned the alphabet. That is too say, he has mastered the twenty-six names. Unlike earlier generations he has not been pressured into memorising the sequence. Impressively he has got the hang of what spelling is — if not yet why people do it. The repertoire he uses would seem to be the standard twenty-six, or most of them, and it's the acquisition of the repertoire that I believe was the first achievement.

      Yes, the names are labels of shapes just as Grampa, pot and Shadow are labels. But the shapes of the letters — and, indeed, the shapes of the digits — involve much greater abstraction. And reading number plates requires something like mastery of all ten digit names and a reasonable majority of letter names. These names are of limited use when learned piecemeal — unlike Grampa, pot and Shadow. This may be less true of numbers at first — but not when kids start interpreting number plates. But there's little use for recognising just a scattering of letter shapes — P as seen on notices is the only one that comes to mind.

      I was thinking of a time when small children took a pride in learning to recite the alphabet — for reward perhaps, but not for any other purpose. Your grandson'e spelling-out is a rewarding game at a developmental point between the stage I had in mind and the ultimate goal of reading.

      I still believe that at the time of learning the repertoire the names are meaningless. But even if I'm wrong, the fact remains that even your grandson learns conventional letter names with no sense as yet of any correspondence to speech sounds — whatever they might prove to be.

      (That said, I have the ghost of a memory of some synaesthetic association — perhaps a colour shared by shape and name. Whatever it was, it was obliterated when I learned to read.)

      And I stand by the significance of the obvious differences between Grampa, pot and Shadow as opposed to the obvious similarities between the monosyllabic majority of the letter names. That, I'm sure, is why regular patterns that made sense in Latin and the odd name that harks back to Greek (if not Phoenician) are sort-of preserved in the letter names of Modern English.

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    11. David: I agree with most of what you say, but again, I think you underestimate the use of knowing that the name of D is /di/, even if you cannot recognize a single word in which it appears, not even your name (his, like yours, begins with that letter). Not only will it get him approval from any adult he knows, but it quite palpably gives him delight to exercise his knowledge. This cannot be imitative behavior, because he has not yet seen others spelling out words.

      I agree that my examples were bad: I should have referred to the other shape names he knows, such as circle, triangle, rectangle, square, oval. He can say and understand triangle for both a block in the shape of a triangular prism and a triangle drawn on paper or appearing on a screen, an impressive feat of abstraction that I think is more difficult than recognizing D. It's true that he cannot map D to /d/, but he seemed to learn its name contemporaneously with learning that there was a class of objects with D-ness in common.

      As for the similarities of the names, triangle and rectangle are likewise rather similar, and I daresay he could learn hexagon and heptagon if there were appropriate referents and people who referred to them.

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    12. John

      I think you underestimate the use of knowing that the name of D is /di/

      That means I expressed myself badly. It is, indeed, a formidable achievement to recognise the shape and to assign a memorised name to it — just as it is to recognise every other noun.

      if we split that achievement into:

      1. recognising the shoe
      2. naming it (assigning a pre-learned label)

      what interested me was the process that precedes process number 2, and is presumably developed over the same developmental period as number 1.

      It's one thing to recognise a round kitchen-based container together with the label pot. It's another, more demanding thing to learn similar but different referents with their labels — so as to be able to recognise that something is a triangle not a rectangle.

      For children who learn to recite the alphabet as a rigmarole, the process that feeds into [2] precedes everything else including [1]. As the child learns to recognise shapes and name them he or she draws on an already memorised repertoire of items that now prove to be labels.

      For children like your grandson, recalling the labels is harder as they are not pre-learned. I believe there must be a transition from the ability to recognise the odd shape+name like D, and the ability to recognise D as a shape that must be distinguished from another set of shapes (much or all of the alphabet). At that transition point the child has learned the letters as an associated group of shapes and their names as a repertoire of labels. He or she has come to that point by a different route than memorising the rigmarole, but the effect is the same.

      My point is that — even for children like your grandson — it's important that the whole system should be memorisable.

      It would be interesting to know what happens when parents teach æ, bə, kə, də, ɛ, fə etc as names. Yes those labels are memorable (and some say superior) if you are teaching the child phonics — actual reading. But are they as useful when the child is just learning names?

      I suppose it's possible that the pattern of similarities and differences didn't help your grandson — I have no empirical proof to the contrary. And yet the names he learned were the traditional names. The tradition was passed on to his parents — and presumably before that to you and the other grandparents. I find it hard to believe that everybody in that chain of oral tradition —stretching back to the Romans with not so many changes along the way — learned the trick of spelling before they learned to recite the rigmarole.

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  15. If haitch did begin life as a hypercorrection then you'd expect it to have its origins in an area where H's are regularly deleted, and that would point to somewhere in England, rather than Ireland. So I'm not sure about that theory now.

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    1. My thought is not that it necessarily began as a hypercorrection way long ago, but that it's spread now is, in a sense, a hypercorrection. That is, it is perceived (by some) that aitch is an h-dropped variation of haitch, and thus that haitch is the more proper pronunciation. And the pattern of haitch being used in areas without h-dropping would fit that. (Not a universal pattern, but enough of one to possibly contribute I think.) Not a correct history of which version is original, but I think not an unreasonable conclusion for people who don't know the etymology (which is most people).

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    2. Musing on hypercorrection, I came to a very different conclusion.

      I've long considered heɪtʃ as an alternative norm. I'd quite forgotten how I felt when I heard it for the first time. I didn't think I felt 'That's just plain wrong!' — at least I hope I didn't. I believe I felt That's just plain weird!' But why that reaction?

      I can only conclude that I associated it with real and fictional utterances such as

      Miss Hotis regrets she's hunable to lunch today'.

      In short, the perception of hypercorrection is an extra factor — along with conservatism and the age at which one learns the alphabet — which has inhibited the spread and acceptance of heɪtʃ.

      Where it did spread most successfully was in infant classrooms with Irish (initially Catholic Irish) teachers — not all of them on the island of Ireland. Perhaps the rote-learning of the sequence of twenty-six letter names is no longer as important so early on as it used to be — which might make it easier for young people to prefer the name with the initial /h/ sound.

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  16. NEWS ON JOHN WELLS

    Unfortunately John is in hospital, having suffered a minor stroke yesterday (Wednesday 20th). I visited him this evening and found him in good spirits. He's able to talk and wants me to let his many followers know that blog service will be resumed as soon as possible. I know that we all send him our very best wishes for a speedy recovery.

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    1. Troubling news. Best wishes indeed.

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    2. May he soon be well and back to blogging!

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    3. I wish John a full recovery and an excellent long-term prognosis!

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    4. I add my good wishes for John's full recovery and speedy return to health.

      John Maidment

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    5. My very best wishes too
      Martin Ball

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    6. mae bɛst wɪʃəz fər a fyl ən ˈspide rɪˈkʌvəre, ty.

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    7. I'm very sorry to hear the news of Professor Wells's stroke. You can see how well liked and respected he is by all these comments. I wish him a speedy recovery.

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    8. I'm sure JW is in good hands, doing their best to hasten his recovery. Very best wishes.

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  17. Sad to hear, and of course I wish John a speedy recovery.

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  18. Wishing you a quick and full recovery, Prof Wells.

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  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  20. Thank you, Dr.Lindsey. I too am wishing Prof.Wells' quick full recovery.

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  21. Wishing a quick recovery, too!

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  22. I also wish Prof Wells a quick and full recovery.

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  23. Wishing Professor Wells a speedy and full recovery!

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  24. I want to add my well wishes to the chorus.

    I have a question, too, regarding the original post: Would someone who says "haitch" use the /h/ in all circumstances? Apropos of the second topic, would such a speaker say [ɛn heɪ̯ʧ ɛs]

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  25. Wishing you a full and speedy recovery!

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  26. John---please do recover and get back to your blog soon, we're missing you...

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  27. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transient_ischemic_attack
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stroke_recovery

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  28. Dear Professor Wells,
    je vous souhaite un prompt rétablissement.
    We your faithful readers do miss your insights a lot.

    Jérôme Poirrier
    Grenoble, France

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