John Wells on the pronunciation of the letter H

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If you have a friend who is confused about the 'iptivisms — or if you yourself have some doubts about the issues involved — I recommend John Wells, "ha ha", John Wells' Phonetic Blog 6/19/2012.

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15 Comments »

  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

    At the end of comments on that post Geoff Lindsey reports that John Wells is in hospital after suffering a minor stroke, but is talking and in good spirits.

    Really hope he has a speedy and full recovery.

  2. BZ said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    I'm not sure what "heart radio" is, but I think there is value in certain types of programs such as news and children's shows to be very prescriptivist with the way they use language for the sake of those still learning it, be they children, immigrants, or foreigners. Once the language is fully learned, you can worry about the whole "some people say it differently and that's ok" thing.

    For what it's worth, I only hear "haich" (or more precisely "hech") from Indians here in the US.

  3. Dan Hemmens said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    I'm not sure what "heart radio" is

    I'm not sure if it's the Heart they're talking about, but there's a UK radio station by that name: http://www.heart.co.uk/london/. It's not exactly aimed at an audience of language learners.

  4. LDavidH said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    @BZ: And when is a language fully learned? Isn't it better to learn to use one variety (from your parents / friends / language teachers) while learning from the start that there are varieties? Otherwise you will get this "what I say is right and everything else is wrong"; the only way to counter that is to acknowledge from the start that there are options.
    As for "haitch", I find it quite useful (e.g. on a crackly phone line) to be able to make a clear initial distinction between H and 8. As an ESL speaker, I can choose how to say H (as long as my wife, native UK, doesn't hear me say "haitch" – she hates it!)

  5. LDavidH said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

    And why doesn't anybody ever query the strange fact that the "correct" pronuciation of H doesn't actually contain the sound of the letter? At least "haitch" is more logical in that respect…

  6. Dan Hemmens said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

    I'm not sure it's that uncommon for the name of a letter to include its sound.

    Of the top of my head C, G, Q, and W don't really include their sounds, and arguably most of the vowels don't.

    Of course this depends rather on what you think the sound of a letter is.

  7. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    And why doesn't anybody ever query the strange fact that the "correct" pronuciation of H doesn't actually contain the sound of the letter? At least "haitch" is more logical in that respect.

    I have heard people question it. And the demand that pronunciations be logical sounds a bit prescriptivist to me. I suspect that this is in fact how the 'haitch' pronunciation started; some people felt that pronunciation should be determined by logic, that than by what people in fact generally say.

    Of course, once usages become widespread enough, they are part of the language, even if they have prescriptivist roots.

  8. Adrian said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    Andrew is right. The "haitch" pronunciation grew up among people who assumed (incorrectly) that the "aitch" pronunciation was wrong or illogical. It's an example of hypercorrection.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    June 25, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    After the discussion of whether the Irish say haitch instead of aitch, it occurred to me to check James Cagney's pronunciation in the song Harrigan from Yankee Doodle Dandy:

    H-A-double R- I, G-A-N that's Harrigan

    and sure enough, he says Haitch. YouTube clip here.

  10. LDavidH said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 2:44 am

    @Dan Hemmens: C, G and Q most certainly include (one of) their sounds: "see" as in cell, cycle etc; "jee" as in gem, gin etc. Q begins with the k-sound which is always part of its English pronunciation. So the only other exception is W, which has a bit of history to go with it.

    And of course my comment was slightly tongue-in-cheek, and slightly just the baffled foreigner in whose language letter names are more closely conncted to their pronunciation…

  11. Nadnerb said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 4:01 am

    I didn't read the whole comment series closely, but I was surprised to see no mention of the added-H or initial aspiration (parallelling haitch-dropping) that if we're to believe the writers has been a prominent feature of British English from way back, invariably serving as a marker of class or geographic origin. (I am not a linguist, merely a reader)

    No quotations I can come up with out of my head, but I'm certain they're in Austen, Kipling, AC Doyle, Waugh, Wodehouse, Amis, many more.

  12. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 7:47 am

    @Nadnerb: "No quotations I can come up with out of my head, but I'm certain they're in …. Kipling …."

    Sure enough they are: "an' the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones…"

  13. Dan Hemmens said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    <blockquote@Dan Hemmens: C, G and Q most certainly include (one of) their sounds: "see" as in cell, cycle etc; "jee" as in gem, gin etc. Q begins with the k-sound which is always part of its English pronunciation.

    By which token, H begins with a silent h, like honest or hour.

    I appreciate that you were mostly joking, and a big part of the issue is that English letters don't *have* a single sound. It's certainly unintuitive, but the names of most English letters are a bit weird.

  14. LDavidH said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    @Dan Hemmens: "By which token, H begins with a silent h, like honest or hour."

    Good point!
    And yes, part of the problem is the amount of different sounds in one letter, and the number of spellings of one sound… All to keep us ESL speakers on our toes, I guess.

  15. xyzzyva said,

    July 13, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    Given the frequency that ‹h› takes part in digraphs ‹th›, ‹sh›, ‹ch›* or is silent, versus the frequency of actually representing the sound /h/, I'd say /eɪtʃ/ is about right.

    *not to mention ‹ph›, ‹wh›, ‹ough›, ‹augh› ‹rh›, etc. In fact, the only two letter digraphs ‹_h› I can find that never occur in English or loanwords seem to be ‹hh, ih, jh, qh, vh, yh›.

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