Thursday, September 24, 2009

The H Bomb


In arguments about language usage, often the loudest voices cry out about "linguistic correctness" and "language purity" and "preserving standards".

But language is about identity, not about some inherent value of one form versus another, and the triumph of a linguistic form tells us more about which speaker has the most powerful friends.
It's never about what's "right" or "wrong". It's about who has the authority to impose their version of the truth. On the day, it's about who wins the territory.


There is currently a hot debate about whether the name of WANGANUI city, which has long been afflicted by a typo (a missing "h"), should be corrected to the spelling WHANGANUI which more accurately reflects the Maori name for the locality.

In trying to seek a solution, it would be more useful, rather than appealing to what the "real" name of the city might be, to speak in terms of justice and of community, of mutual tolerance, and of the attempt to eradicate the toxic effects of racism and an imperialist arrogance.

It might also help to realise that this is just one more of a string of explosive social situations triggered by differing habits concerning the letter "h".


An "h" is just a puff of air - an "aspiration". But what we do with our "H" seems to be particularly well suited to distinguishing "you lot" from "us lot". And some of these disagreements can get very hot-headed.

It's not the actual use of the "H" that matters, it's which side of the H we have chosen to stand on. Some of us drop it, and some of us pick it up, and it's not intrinsically "in" or "out" to do either.

It's who is doing the dropping that matters. If they're with us, then whatever they do is OK. We're human and we want to be part of our group and there are powerful pressures on us to sound like the other members of our group. That's why language can change so swiftly.


Here's an example of the mainstream culture dropping the "h" and the marginalised group speaking it out: the very name of the letter "h" is pronounced "aitch" in 'proper' British English.

So in the early years of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand the poor Irish (who say "haitch") stood out like a sore thumb. The story goes that groups of bullies would challenge some poor hapless lad to spell a word with "h" in it, and if he said it the wrong way, he was apt to be beaten up.


And now here is another instance of it being flash NOT to say the "H": in NZ it is becoming rather old fashioned to insist on the "an" form of the indefinite article before certain words starting with "h". When I was at school we got in trouble for writing or saying "a hotel". Now, decades later, I'd say it would be considered rather affected for a younger person to attempt such an archaic usage.

Where did this so-called "grammar" rule come from? (It does make sense to use "an" before a word starting with a "silent h", such as "hour".)

I'd guess this "rule" dates back to the latter stages of the Norman French invasion of England, when French was pretty well established as the prestige dialect and the ruling classes and their collaborators communicated either in French or in a heavily French-influenced English. The French don't pronounce the initial "h" so the practice of imitating the high-class h-drop would have set the local speaker apart as being conversant in the oppressor language, as upwardly mobile or as a collaborator.

The effect of this social stratification is still felt in English vocabulary today, with Anglo-Saxon words for the live beast eg ox, pig and the French-derived word beef, pork for the cooked version of the animal, served at table. (The peasants tended the flocks and the upper crust ate the banquets.)

And even now if an English speaker wants to sound educated or sophisticated there's no better way to add a certain je ne sais quoi than by throwing in a little piece of French.


In My Fair Lady the superior attitude of many a middle class speaker of the "Queen's English" when confronted with lower class Cockney "h-dropping" is well established.

But as we've already seen, it can also be very "posh" to drop your "h". Hmmm.


My Dad, a Southern New Zealander of Scottish descent, who would have turned 93 next week, carefully distinguished between the two words witch and which. He was part of an older New Zealand generation who pronounced "wh" with an aspiration.

This "phonemic" distinction has been lost in contemporary Kiwi English. (As has the difference between "ear" and "air", but that's another story!)

I remember at primary school the teachers tried to train us in to pronouncing "which" and "witch" differently, but we weren't having any of it.

Which leads to another important truism about language change: it's almost impossible to legislate it, unless you have the population behind you, or an army to enforce the "rules".

Language change "from the top down" has been achieved, of course, with military force, eg in North Korea, or with popular support, as with the successful introduction of the form "Ms" to western culture.


Probably the most dangerous experience of the disadvantage of pronouncing your "h"-word the "wrong" way, comes to us from the biblical tale of the word "Shibboleth" used by the Gileadites as a test to detect the fleeing Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound "sh" (Judges 12:4–6).

The Ephraimites pronounced the word as "sibboleth" and thus revealing themselves to be inable to aspirate the "s", were slaughtered.

And the word shibboleth today is used for such a linguistic phenomenon, that separates the sheep from the goats.

Currently in NZ, the shibboleth is the way you choose to spell Whanganui. If enough of us just do it, it will become the dominant form.


Mary McCallum said...

wonderful post!

lmrb said...

Absolutely wonderful post, especially the intro para. In class ridden England (despite denials that this is no longer the case), the upper classes refer to the loo as lavatory, while the lower classes refer to the loo as toilet. To say toilet in upper circles is to be "non-u". Here in Oz, and probably NZ, the loo is increasingly referred to as the bathroom with all its suggestions of purity, etc. I guess that means the puritans are on a roll. Meanwhile, I am loo bound...

Vanda Symon said...

'Ear 'ear.

When discussing grammar with the boys, we were talking about using 'an' before words starting with vowels, and I tossed in and before words starting with 'h' They looked startled.

Great post, PC.

Kilmog Press said...

nice post, especially those guys who got clobbered for not apirating their 's's. Further reading, Otto Jeperson, The Growth & Structure of the English Language, a nice little green book you'll find no doubt at every regent book fair, and despite it's title, a fantastic little read on the subject.

cinnamon girl said...

This post is awesome. Brilliant. I would absolutely love to read anything else you care to write about linguistics.