Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Aitch anxiety

How do you pronounce the letter "h"? Do you say "aytch" or "haytch"? Does one or the other of these pronunciations bother you greatly?

Mr Blithe drew my attention to a fascinating article on the BBC website about changing pronunciations. He asked me to guess which sentence in it made him think of me.

I guessed correctly.

It was the one about the "slightly agonised look in some people's eyes" at the sound of the eighth letter of the alphabet being said as "haytch." I have always been emphatic that the pronunciation is "aitch" even if everyone in Queensland pronounces it the other way. Blithe Girl asked me one day if I minded if she said "haytch" at school and "aytch" at home as she was tired of being different. To my shame, I insisted that she speak "properly." Really I need to get over it.

I attribute this to my family's Irish Protestant background where one knew a person was Roman Catholic by their "haytchs" but apparently it is related to class anxiety as well. Whoda thunk? Well I'm actually not too surprised as it was always made fairly clear to me at my middle class English-style primary school that hayseeds and rednecks spoke one way and educated people spoke another. This is ironic because as a result of my wildly divergent educational experiences I have some pretty weird pronunciations in spite of my culturally pure h's. I sound English but say "dienasty" not "dinasty" and occasionally talk about sidewalks and parking lots.

I was amused by reference in the article to a 1928 BBC guide to pronunciation. Did you know that in 1928 pristine rhymed with wine, combat was cumbat and housewifery, huzzifry (or even that they used that word)? Did you also know that more people under the age of 35 in the UK now make says rhyme with lays and not fez?

The British Library is recording changes in pronunciation by recording people reading the opening passage of a Mr Men book, Mr Tickle. This was chosen because it is well-known and will not inspire people to put on their best "posh" voices. I wonder what would be chosen for reading in an Australian context?


Vivi said...

Fascinating. Poor Blithe Girl, having one language at school and one at home.

As a long term 'aitch' (not haytch) speaker, I'm surprised at the predominance of the alternate pronunciation. I've never heard it that way in common speech, except on Masterpiece Theater Dickens productions. I haven't read the BBC link yet -- I'm guessing Americans tend to the no-h sound generally?

Blithe said...

Three "more mature" people told me yesterday that it is definitely "aitch" as that is a sign of education. However, at least in Queensland, I think that is changing, with people seeing it as a badge of regional pride.

I think Americans do tend to the no-h as they drop it on many words on which we would pronounce it.

I think the interesting thing is how language is changing and how hard it is to differentiate between genuine change and laziness/poor education/other reasons. And language is so much a part of us that we get emotional about pronunciation.