Haitch has the pedigree
There’s an ironic wrinkle to this story. The name aitch might be a sign of high education in some circles, but is itself an example of H-dropping. Deriving from medieval French hache or “axe” (hatchet and hashtag are relatives), it also arrived in English H-less (like humble and herb).
It’s a curious letter name being, as the Oxford English Dictionary describes, “so remote from any connection with the sound”. In fact there’s solid evidence supporting haitch as the better option. To understand why, we need to appreciate the primacy of initial letter sounds in words.
Learning and alliteration
English speakers find it easiest to attend to and manipulate the beginning sounds of words. For example, it’s easier for us (orally, that is - by sound, not spelling) to take away the “b” sound in beat (to make it eat) or to replace the “b” with a “p” to make it Pete than it is to take away the “t” sound in beat (to make it be) or to replace it with a “k” to make it beak.
It’s more natural for us to focus on initial sounds, especially for children.
We often make use of alliteration in names and tongue twisters. Dr. Seuss (think Aunt Annie’s Alligator or The Butter Battle Book), Walt Disney (such as Donald Duck; Mickey Mouse), and J.K. Rowling (Godric Gryffindor; Helga Hufflepuff; Rowena Ravenclaw; Salazar Slytherin) all capitalised on this phenomenon.
Tongue twisters highlight the special quality of alliteration for learning as well; who can forget Peter Piper and his pickled peppers, Silly Sally and her sheep, or Betty Botter and her butter?
The ABCs of the ABC
Many letters of the alphabet are phonetically iconic; their names represent the sound they make. In places where letter names are learned before letter sounds, such as Australia and the US, these letter names can facilitate children in learning letter sounds and, ultimately, word reading. The letter sounds that are easiest to remember are those that begin with their corresponding letter, such as B, D, J, K, P, or T.
Research shows it’s more difficult to learn sounds made by letters that end with their letter sound, such as F, L, and M. Those that have no correspondences to the letter sound are the most difficult. Logically, W should make the “d” sound (or change its name to wubble-u).
Haitch vs. aitch, round 2
Whatever your visceral reaction to pronouncing H one way or the other, haitch has definite benefits for letter sound learning.
So it’s not surprising it’s taking off in some parts of the English-speaking world. When the letter H is pronounced beginning with the letter sound it makes, children have an easier time learning its correspondence as they learn to read.
Dr. Seuss implicitly understood this. We suggest that a follow-up primer for young readers will one day include Horton hearing a Haitch.
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