The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler – Extract

The Aitch Factor


I like to joke that, as the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, I am like the woman with the mop and bucket who comes along to clean up after the party is over. By this I mean that I do not create the mess. I am not devising the new words and bending the language to new uses. That is the consequence of the creative, not to say intoxicated, efforts of the language community. All I do is tidy up and decide what is worth putting in the dictionary and what goes out with the rubbish. After a lifetime of such morning-after activity, I am in a good position to know what the successes and failures of the language have been. The usage notes in the dictionary are little reminders of such excitements, some of them generating broad discussion because this is the kind of party where both the fire brigade and the police have been called, the miscreants summoned before the court of pedants and censure meted out in all the word forums of the land. Others are of more academic interest causing the occasional chewing of the editorial blue pencil, or some educational angst about what should be promulgated in classrooms.

In all this the dictionary has tried to describe, as objectively as possible, what the language community seems to be doing and where it is headed. We have on occasion attempted to forge consensus with some of the major players in setting language style, but this is difficult. The very people who care passionately about language matters are the ones who are likely to be the most stubborn about particular issues.

As we make our language choices we should know when to care and when not to care. For myself, I care about ’s plurals. This seems to me to be the one major blight on our texts at the moment and I wish something could be done about it. I would recommend losing the apostrophe completely rather than give in to the ’s plurals.

In contrast to this, I think that, broadly speaking, variation should be accepted and that we should have greater tolerance of the choices made by others.

Watching the community arrive at these decisions and watching words take on histories and connotations that give them special significance in Australian English has shaped my days as editor. In that role I have to try to assess the mood of the language community.

But that still leaves me free to have personal likes and dislikes. This book is a mix of the objective view and the personal opinions developed over six editions of the dictionary. It covers a great range of topics, from usage matters to spelling, from origins of words to aspects of Australian English and of English around the world. As a dictionary editor I can’t resist alphabetical order, so the items of discussion are linked by an intuitive sense of A to Z based on the words that I would give emphasis to in the headings.

I hope that readers find something of interest in this mix of observations and reflections. As for me, it is time to wield the mop and bucket again!

Aitch versus Haitch

Battle-weary though we all are, we must face up to the problem of aitch versus haitch yet again. Now I know that you have all instantly retreated to the trenches but come on out for a minute and consider the situation calmly.

For various historical reasons we have ended up with this variation in pronunciation. Those of you who say aitch would do well to bear in mind that an accident of linguistic change has meant that the Latin ha – the name for the letter that illustrated the aspiration – has been altered by degrees through aha to ache to aitch, a name that no longer illustrates aspiration.

The attempt to return the aspiration to the name is logical enough. Any child learning the alphabet understands that a is for ‘apple’ and b is for ‘bat’. This is a good starting point for capturing the sound of letters, although already quite a lot has been glossed over in the creation of letter-to-sound equivalences. It is intuitively more logical to relate the name of the letter h to the aspirated rather than the unaspirated form. That is to say, h is for ‘hat’ rather than ‘hour’. ‘Haitch is for “hat”,’ the child says. ‘No! No! No!’ we all yell. ‘You must never, never say haitch. Aitch is for “hat”.’ It doesn’t add up but the parental pain is evident so the children add it to the list of extraordinary and pointless things they are supposed to say and do while their parents are around.

Parents know that if their children pick their noses, neglect their teeth, say haitch instead of aitch, they will never make it in the world. It’s as simple as that. Haitch is logical but not socially acceptable. Again history plays its part.

In Australia, the haitch pronunciation has been linked with Irish Catholics, the Marist Brothers in particular, although no real research has been done into this and it may well be hearsay or at best circumstantial. So the stigmatised pronunciation has been linked to a group who were traditionally the underdogs in Australian society.

It is remarkable that we fix on some idiosyncrasies of language as markers of the decline of Western civilisation, while others we are prepared to tolerate as acceptable variation. Of course, once such a pronouncement becomes entrenched in the language standards taught at school, the chances of the proscribed item ever being accepted are strongly diminished.

Why can’t we regard this as a case of variant forms, as we do with ‘schedule’ (skedjool or shedjool) or ‘harass’ (harass or huh’rass)? Why does it create so much unnecessary heat? We ought to be able to dispassionately regard such strictures in our adult assessment of the relative importance of the bits of learning we acquired as part of our education.

Is it rather that we are reluctant to give up what seems so simple and obvious a proof of our own superiority?

People have fought wars because they felt superior to others. No one has done it yet on the basis of haitch, but it still remains an unnecessary social divider. You say haitch, I say aitch. Let’s be tolerant of our little differences in language as in everything else.

In any case, the debate may roll over all of us because the young are endorsing haitch in ever-increasing numbers. Gender and social background no longer seem to have any bearing on the matter. It is in widespread use.

Feelings about alphabetical order

Most of us feel strongly about things at times. The war in Syria, the fate of the planet, who took the last biscuit when I wanted one for morning tea. But not many of us get worked up over alphabetical order. Not many of us realise, to begin with, that there is more than one kind of alphabetical order.

How to explain this without sending you to sleep? The following sequence of words is arranged in the manner that is the norm in the Macquarie Dictionary:

bush breakfast
bush wire

This is a rigid style of ordering, where spaces and hyphens are ignored and you progress letter by letter.

Other dictionaries organise the presentation of the material differently, grouping all the words that are spaced or hyphenated under the first key item, so all the bush compounds of this kind might appear at bush, and the compounds that are set solid would have their own headword. The order in this system would be:

bush breakfast
bush wire

There are arguments for and against, but Macquarie, like many other dictionaries, prefers the letter-by-letter arrangement. As we all know, English changes its mind about whether words are set solid, hyphenated or separated, so the letter-by-letter order avoids the change that would happen if we decided, for example, to spell bushwhacker as bush whacker.

Differences abound in this world and people can argue up a storm for various points of view. But we had one unusual caller who added a moral dimension to this. Her response to difference was to say that there is only one correct way. ‘Why do you people take everything to the lowest common denominator?’ she exclaimed with passionate feeling.

It seems that we attach connotations to everything we touch. Seeing difference leads us immediately to decisions about right and wrong, and inevitably to associations of love or hate. All on very little information.

Is it all right to be alright?

The process of change in language is not always smooth. The major bump is often a generational one, the older generation hanging on with increasing disbelief and outrage to what they know to be correct and the younger generation cruising on, so far from knowing that their usages are a departure from the norm that they are surprised, and then dismissive, when this is pointed out to them.

At Macquarie we have kept watch on the rising star of alright and have to announce that as of the fourth edition, it has equal place in the firmament with all right. Some of you will be shocked, I know. Some of you will mutter about Macquarie’s permissiveness. Instead of conducting public floggings of the miscreants, we meekly allow ourselves to be swayed by public and ignorant opinion. What can we do? Educated writers, published writers, writers from organisations with style guides and editors to police them have adopted alright. So be it. We are holding the line on alot, though. For now.

Our justification for this adjustment to the dictionary is that the language community seems to be equally divided over whether alright is acceptable or not. Of course what we expect to happen in due course is that this lexical item will follow the pattern of already and altogether where it is possible to distinguish between already meaning ‘by this time’ and all ready meaning ‘all prepared’. Similarly we will be able to say ‘The boys are alright’ meaning ‘they are comfortable, well, happy, etc.’, and ‘The boys are all right’ meaning ‘every single boy is correct in what he has done’. But at the moment we are still in a muddle, held back by the notion that alright is a shibboleth that educated people avoid.

Gazing at a crystal ball to predict the future of language changes like these is hazardous and unhelpful. So often it is the case that community opinion defies opposing forces, such as logic and the constant pressure of deviations, to maintain a perceived standard. Looking at student writing I would be prepared to bet that in another twenty years alot will be the norm. But even as I slapped my money on the table

I would experience a frisson of doubt. For how many centuries did the infinitive remain unrealistically and un-Englishly unsplit?

Excerpted from The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Butler.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


One thought on “The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler – Extract

  1. Pingback: Review: The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler | book'd out

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s