Is H a vowel?

Language changes over time, which can be both exciting and challenging. However, sometimes when you are a little longer in the tooth, some changes are difficult to come to terms with.

Grammatical rules that you learned as a child, or things that you have become a pedant about are difficult to accept.

The letter H and how it is pronounced is one such problem for me.

Aitch-dropping is the deletion of the voiceless glottal sound. The ‘huh’ sound of an aitch. Several accents tend to do this. But this isn’t my main problem.

The letter aitch – H, is a voiceless sound, created in the throat, not inside the mouth, or on the lips. It is like a pant of breath, a gentle escape of air.

Words where that breathy sound is heard for example are; have, house, home, human, hospital, horrible…

Some of you may remember the character Liza Doolittle having to say words beginning with letter ‘h’, without blowing out the candle, in the musical, “My Fair Lady.”

But with some written words, aitch is not sounded at all e.g. honest, hour, honour, heir…

Then there is the discussion about whether you should use the word ‘an’ or ‘a’ before words beginning with aitch.

Usually words with a vowel have ‘an’ before them, and words with constants, ‘a’. This is where it can get tricky.

The rule is, use ‘a’ with words where the ‘h’ is pronounced e.g. a house; a human; a home; a hospital etc.

Use ‘an’ with words beginning with an unpronounced aitch e.g.  an hour, an honour, an heir, an honest man…

If you try saying these words with an ‘a’ before them it’s quite hard to say, because you end up with two vowel sounds next to each other (due to the silent aitch);

         hour:                he left a (h)our earlier;

         honour:            it was a (h)onour working with him; 

         heir:                 he was a (h)eir to the estate;

         honest:            she was a (h)onest woman.

It is so much easier to say,

                                He left an hour earlier;

                                It was an honour working with him;

                               He was an heir to the estate;

                               She was an honest woman.

In the 18th and 19th century, the standard rule was to say ‘an historian’, but over the course of the 20th century, American English has tended to move this, and many people now say ‘a historian’. Even when I was at school learning to read and write, I was taught to say ‘an hotel’. Aitch was treated like a vowel, but I am talking the mid-fifties. Yes, I am that old! 

Sometimes, it’s a matter of saying the words in a way that feels and sounds right to you.  For me, I would prefer to say ‘an historian’, because to say ‘a historian’, I have to leave a gap to be able to pronounce the aitch!  However, I don’t say ‘an hotel’ these days, because to do so, you have to leave off the aitch, which, now can sound a little pretentious. Although it’s something the character and snob, Mrs Bouquet, in ‘Keeping up Appearances’ would quite happily say!

It must be a hangover from my early years, but I hate to hear someone pronounce Haitch-R, rather than Aitch-R for the profession of HR.  Following on from above, if they were to say ‘I work as an Aitch- R professional’ it fits the rule above, whereas to say ‘I work as a Haitch-R professional’ just sounds completely wrong to me.

 Why does this bother me?  Because, in my head, aitch on its own has no sound, and the correct name of the letter is aitch, not haitch. When I was growing up there was no such word. However, if you look in the free-dictionary online, you’ll find the word Haitch as an alternative to aitch. 

As some people are apostrophe pedants, I make no apologies – I am an aitch pedant! 

Actually, I’m a bit of a wuss, I do apologise to those of my contacts who do use Haitch R – you must say what you prefer, I’ll just keep on having a little internal ‘tut’.

What are the words or grammar issues that annoy you?