Hey, it's 'H' with an 'aitch'

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Caroline Sarll is a supply teacher and journalist

Forget Jade Goody's gaffs. The recent seismic series of celebrity Big Brother got my goat for another reason.

For the last month or so, I have listened to my pupils discussing the various contestants, including Ian "H" Watkins - and a dormant niggle has surfaced. Why do so many people insist on saying "Haitch", when the name of the letter is so clearly "Aitch"? Everyone, from north to south, from teachers to telephonists is guilty of doing, or rather, having it - a severe and seemingly insurmountable H-block.

The correct pronunciation is, after all, there in black and white in the trusty Oxford English Dictonary. Aitch. Not an "H" (that's aitch, please.) Nature's haitchers, of course, will argue with you till they are blue in the face that the letter must be pronounced "Haitch", because "like, y'know, all words starting with that letter make a "huh" sound".

What a dog's breakfast of an argument that is. That would surely mean calling the letter aitch "Huh", in line with the phonic method that early years children follow: a, buh, cuh, duh, eh, fuh, guh, huh.

We would even end up calling the letter "L" "luh" or even "lell". No - the fact is, that aitch is unique in the alphabet. It is one of the few letters that has a given name in the OED.

Neither "pee" nor "gee" is allowed and none of the vowels has a literal name -"you" is already spoken for, and "yu", I'm delighted to report, is not the name of the letter "U" but an ancient Chinese wine vessel with a swing handle and decorative cover.

"Tee" and "en" have meanings other than the names of the letters (look them up), but aitch is simply aitch. A controversial, cheeky little chappie that deserves to be acknowledged for its singularity and, dare I say it, in this education-by-osmosis, e-lish, look-and-say era we live in - to take its place alongside irregular verbs and diphthongs - and learned. By teachers, as well as pupils, please.

We need to stop this oral rot. To my surprise Dr Paul Tench, senior lecturer at the centre of language and communication research at the University of Wales, Cardiff, is much more sanguine about the prevalence of "Haitch".

He says: "It's actually rather clever. People have obviously wanted the name of the letter to sound like the letter itself.

"It could also be a class thing, of course - less-educated people wanting to sound more elevated. But, if my students said 'Haitch', it wouldn't bother me. I take the descriptive view of language, not the prescriptive one."

Whatever its origins, shibboleth or not, I'm still not convinced: standards of oracy are declining so rapidly and children's speech is clearly low down on the list of schools' and, indeed, parents' priorities.

In November 2003, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority launched its speaking and listening initiative in all primary schools nationwide. The handbook states that the "excellent teaching of speaking and listening enhances children's learning and raises standards". Hear, hear.

So why the continued debasement? What we surely need is elocution, a concept as anachronistic as thank-you letters and home-made elastic sock-garters.

With an estimated seven million illiterate adults in this country, the focus on reading and writing is understandable. But why are we neglecting speech, when the three are so closely linked? Read better, write better, speak better.

To get the ball rolling, how about someone to champion a nationwide Aitch-Aid campaign? Someone pupils will identify with, who will see the eighth letter for the wonder it really is? Someone who will see that getting this small word right will lead to an improvement of verbal and, ultimately, written standards across the board?

I would suggest the ex-Steps songster, turned Big Brother bod, the affable (or should that be haffable?) "H".

Problem is, he has already dropped his. Dropping aitches. Now that's another whole story.

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