We Need a Law Against Haitch Speech

MOST of us over the age of 30 and lucky enough to have received a half-decent education, rather than what passes for such in most of today’s Australian schools, understand what is meant when a discussion or meeting is prefaced by ‘this will take place under Chatham House Rules’.  But only in London can you be wandering around and look up to see the actual Chatham House itself.  That’s what happened to my wife and me last weekend as we strolled around St. James’ Square.

If you’re an aficionado of the P.G. Wodehouse oeuvre (I doubt there’s ever lived a funnier writer, one able to make you laugh out loud while reading all by yourself) then this is Club Land.  This is the heart of London’s great clubs, including Wodehouse’s fictional Drones’ Club which he inserts into this general area.  The real ones include The Athenaeum, Army and Navy, In and Out and East India Club, with others, such as the Reform, Royal Automobile, Oxford and Cambridge and Carlton, being not much more than a good stone’s throw further away.

When you’re walking along Pall Mall, or around St. James’ Square, you can see these grand old clubs if you look carefully. We were doing just that last weekend when we spied Chatham House, home to the Royal Institute of International Affairs.  My bet with such a body, and the sort of ‘insider outlooks’ that tend to be represented nowadays, is that nothing it produces will be anywhere near as well known as the rule that originated within its walls and whose aim was to encourage open discussion and the free flow between participants of information, especially of the sensitive variety. The basic idea is that listeners can absorb and even use the information they hear but they may not ever reveal the identity of the speaker who conveyed it, nor his or her affiliations.

The way things are going in Australia’s universities, we conservative academics might soon be having to operate under Chatham House Rules.

Here’s something else that struck my consciousness just a few days ago.  It came as a sort of bolt from the blue. Here in the UK, people know how to pronounce the letter of the alphabet that follows ‘G’ and precedes ‘I’.  You might say how it is spelt is a big clue; the proper standard spelling being ‘aitch’.  Look, I love Australia, but few things are as irksome as hearing people say ‘haitch’.  Where did that come from?  I’ve told my 25-year-old son and 24-year-old daughter they are not to bring anyone home to meet their parents if they say ‘haitch’.  I mean, you have to have some standards even these days. Right?  Bertie Wooster, for one, would never be so crass or ill-educated.

I have a few talks to give coming up over here.  So my next little travelogue will be from Scotland – home of the Allan clan via a century or so (on both my parents’ sides) in Canada.  It’s my excuse for being a terrible dancer.  All my Scots-Canadian Presbyterian ancestors never got a chance to practice.

  • IainC

    Two minor comments.
    1. I understood it came with the Irish contribution to Australian English, being pronounced eg hay-utch in Northern Ireland, etc. This could be a complete myth.
    2. I admit to a feeling of glee when HIH when broke in the 80s (I think), knowing that the news reports would be amusingly full of “haitch-eye-haitch”es for weeks to come. They were.

  • Doubting Thomas

    This is a common belief and many still argue that to have been the reason, particularly in Queensland. I went to Catholic schools and was taught by Irish teachers in both primary and secondary schools. “Haitch” was always discouraged.

  • lloveday

    I have less problem with “haitch” than I do with Obama (and a good number of people living in Australia) saying “good payin jobs”, and don’t even notice who uses which.

    But I think that when there is but one rule – “nothing it produces will be anywhere near as well known as the rule” – one should use the singular rather than “Chatham House Rules”.

  • padraic

    Those that despair of “haitch” also despair of the Cockneys saying ‘Arry instead of Harry. I thinks it must be Australian to say haitch – we do have a culture of our own (contrary to popular green-left opinion) and as such the language changes, even though in the Anglo world we all speak English. Americans, Canadians, South Africans etc all have made alterations resulting in their versions of the English language. Our old headmaster, a MA from Sydney Uni, could write and speak Latin fluently always told us that in speaking or writing English formally always speak the King’s/Queen’s English but in everyday conversation with our peers and families feel free to use the Australian idiom as it was a very rich, descriptive and sometimes colourful language – and that included the use of haitch. We learnt the alphabet in primary school phonetically – A -ah, B-buh. C-cuh, D-duh etc. When we came to H it was “huh” not “uh”. Haitch was consistent with the rational phonetic pattern of reciting the ABC. If people get lathered up about haitch why stop there? – why not rough, cough, tough etc. being roff, coff and toff? English is full of these little inconsistencies. Let’s loosen up and enjoy them. I would hate to see something like the Academie Francaise which tells you there is only one way to speak French and deplores le breakfast and le weekend.

  • padraic

    I hasten to add that MA is the written code for “Master of Arts” hence “a” instead of “an”. Another Aussie slip up?

  • Salome

    I remember in the 60s saying ‘aitch’ to the mother of a school friend, only to be pulled up by her and told to say ‘haitch’ (Mum soon put me straight again). My friend and I were both at the State school, and there was nothing to suggest that her parents had been to Catholic school. But I take lloveday’s point–what comes out of the USA these days (which is nothing like what came out of Hollywood in the old days, where you’d have to say that they spoke beautifully) does far more violence to the English language. My pet peeve is the latter day inability of Americans to accent an ‘o’ syllable (except in ‘progress’) without lengthening it–the name Posner becomes Pose-ner, or ‘coprolite’ becomes ‘co-prolite’. Where did THAT come from?

  • Lawriewal

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
    A B C D E F G H

  • Mohsen

    By “hence” in your second comment, are you asserting that the use of “a” before MA was correct, considering MA is read as “em ay” not Master of Arts!
    Anyway, I suppose–since considering that your comment isn’t probably formulated in King’s English–your colloquial “a” before M matches your colloquial “uni” in the same sentence! So, no slipup!
    Your “slip up” for slipup/slip-up is a slipup alright!


  • Tony Tea

    People who say “haitch” have dinner for lunch and tea for dinner. Beasts.

  • padraic

    Mohsen – you are absolutely right. I should have used “an” instead of “a” and did not read the post carefully before hitting the submit button and I was trying in the second post to weasel out of the error. In relation to Salome’s comment on American pronunciation there is another issue here and it relates to the classic ways the English and French pronounce the same word. In English each syllable in a word begins with a vowel, whereas in French each syllable begins with a consonant. If you take the word ‘pronunciation’ for example, the French break it up as follows PRO/NUN/CIA/TION but in English it is PRON/UNCI/AT/ION. The same word but with emphasis on the consonant in French and the emphasis on the vowel in English you get two very different pronunciations of the word (and all the others). The Americans tend to pronounce their words more in the classic English way but I have noticed that in Australia we pronounce quite a few words in the French way, although the English way is dominant.

  • padraic

    Just to add to the pedantic agony of this discussion – I remember when we went metric in Australia we pronounced the word “ki/lo/me/tre” the French way with the consonant first but the Americans pronounced it the classic English way “kil/om/et/er”. Due to US media influence more and more Australians are pronouncing it the American way these days and more and more you are seeing “meter” instead of “metre” (as in running the 100 meters). The same influence has turned “mum” into “mom”.

  • Lawriewal

    “… as hearing the NINTH letter of the alphabet…”

    G is never referred a “aitch”or even “haitch” in my experience.
    ( just another pedant:-)

  • Lawriewal

    My bad:- Involuntary click on SUBMIT.

    Actually nor is I – the actual NINTH letter- ever referred to as etc etc.
    ( what I would give for an EDIT function right now:-).

  • lloveday


    I remember this with fondness – the Great Man, Goof being put in his place by a lesser:
    Whitlam, perhaps taking after his highly irregular given name, was also at the vanguard of pronunciation, and championed the kuh-LOM-uh-tuh pronunciation for the unit of measurement.
    “All English words ending in -meter or -metre derive from the Greek word metron,” Whitlam told anyone who would listen during a sitting in parliament in 1975, “in which the penultimate syllable is short, the letter e in English reproducing epsilon”.
    Thus, Whitlam said, the metre in kilometre should be a neutral vowel — a schwa — leaving kuh-LOM-uh-tuh the only agreeable option.
    But the chairman of the Metric Conversion Board disagreed, and privately brought his concerns to Clyde Cameron, then minister for science and consumer affairs.
    Cameron — described at his death as “unrelenting in his enmities” — took the kilometre affair as an opportunity to publicly rebuke Whitlam for an earlier demotion.
    What followed was by turns catty and bizarre: Cameron, recognising Whitlam’s fervour for the classics stemmed from his instruction in Greek under Enoch Powell in the 1930s, proceeded to telephone Enoch Powell to ask for confirmation of the proper pronunciation of kilometre.
    Powell’s office, (by then, Powell had ceased to be a Greek tutor and was instead an Ulster Unionist MP) sent back a curt response:
    “You ask whether Greek derivation requires the o in kilometre to be stressed. If so, it would also require the o in kilogram to be stressed.”
    Thus armed, Cameron summarily read out Powell’s response in parliament. Cameron crowed, Whitlam seethed.

  • Peter OBrien

    What about ‘Febuwary’?

  • padraic

    Thanks lloveday for that great story about Whitlam, Cameron and Powell. I missed all that because I was working in UK at the time. Powell’s telling answer has also vindicated a position I took some years back when I was doing a unit in Greek history. I found it easier to memorise and hence spell in written essays and exams the long classical Greek names using the French way of breaking up a word. During a verbal discussion in class, the lecturer noted the way I was pronouncing the names and took umbrage and told me I had to pronounce them the right way, viz: his way, which was the Gough way. Anyway, I did not agree with him and asked “How do you know the way in which the Greeks in 600 BC pronounced these names? When you say the names your way I understand, and when I say them my way, you understand. Surely that’s all that matters?” Being a young lecturer confronting a mature age student, he was less than impressed and for my next written assignment I got five and a half out of ten. An attractive girl student who rated my assignment better than hers when we compared notes afterwards got 8 out of 10. Objectivity at Universities has many angles.

  • Tricone

    I grew up with haitch, Catholic family and school in Australia, then learned aitch from sophisticated company,

    My better-educated kids, state school in UK, engineering at UK university, say haitch.

    You, sir, are a snob who needs to get out more.

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