Haitchers gonna haitch – An Irishman’s Diary on Hiberno-English and the Queen’s English

I spent a couple of hours last month talking to an English journalist who was in town to cover the Rising centenary. And during a wide-ranging exchange on the history of Anglo-Irish relations, our subject turned to peculiarities of speech.

On which note, he mentioned a recent phenomenon in London for which he thought Ireland responsible – the relentless advance of the aspirated "haitch". Like most well-educated natives of those parts, he was an aitch-man himself. I also suspect, although he was too polite to say so, that haitch made his ears bleed.

Even so, he seemed to offer the news of its triumph in a spirit of generosity, as a small Irish revenge for 1916. It was as if we had sent a linguistic version of the gunboat Helga up the Thames, to blast the aitch – a cornerstone of the Queen's English – into submission.

Trying to disguise the perverse pride this news inspired in me, I protested that in such a multicultural city, there could be many authors of such a change.


Jamaicans, for example, who have been known to hypercorrect to the extent even of aspirating the “h” in “honour”. Or Asians. Or indeed Americans, especially through that h-intensive weapon, “hip-hop” – a prolific engine of linguistic innovation.

But by way of accepting credit, anyway, I also drew my visitor's attention to another haitch-word – Halloween – and the irony of how the English have been forced to celebrate that festival. For centuries, it was an Irish-Scottish thing, like whiskey, while for political reasons, the English preferred its near neighbour in the calendar, Guy Fawkes Night.

Then Halloween was exported via our exiled children in America. And now the Yanks were selling it back to us at a big mark-up, while also forcing the English (and the rest of the world) to buy. The Fifth of November, meanwhile, withers.

Getting back to the advance of the haitchers, I know that in another emigrant country, Australia, the phenomenon has been blamed on/credited to "linguistically subversive Irish nuns" – the Sisters of Mercy, in particular.

The trend appears to be relentless there too, and the anti-aspirationists can do little about it. As the language blogger Stan Carey put it wittily in a post on the subject – "Haitchers Gonna Haitch."


Speaking of cultural signifiers in speech, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned once from a colleague who had spent years in Belfast and who looked askance when I named part of that city “the Ardoyne”.

As he pointed out, only the British army called it that – the locals said simply “Ardoyne”. For me to put a “the” before the name was as big a faux pas, he suggested, as spelling Connacht with an “ugh”.

The irony here, of course, is that Ardoyne is the exception that proves the rule. Everywhere else in Hiberno-English, using the definite article before nouns is as typical as saying “haitch”.

This is mainly because the definite article is the only article the Irish mother tongue has. Hence our habit of saying, for example, “I’m perished with the cold” or “I’ll have to ask the Da”.

Medical conditions (“the rheumatism”, “the ould cancer”, etc) are particularly prone to it, as is one of their causes (“the drink”). This may explain why, in Ireland, we make even celebrations sound like diseases, eg “How did you get over the Christmas?”

Terry Dolan's Dictionary of Hiberno-English records a classic exhibit from Angela's Ashes, viz: "Of course you're bound to have the cough when you live in Limerick because this is the capital city of the weak chest and the weak chest leads to the consumption."

There's also a fine example in the work of Patrick Kavanagh. I recall it was the cause of cultural confusion many years ago when the Abbey Theatre toured the Soviet Union, dramatising the poet's social realism for a communist audience. The Russians might have understood Kavanagh's general point – that, even into advanced age, persons of the male gender retain an incorrigible recklessness more appropriate to youth. But as to his exact phrase – "the men's the boys" – they were mystified.

The definite article has special historic resonance here dating back to the Gaelic chieftains. Hence the 20th-century nationalist Michael O’Rahilly renaming himself old-style – a right that, after his martyr’s death, WB Yeats supported in verse.

Linguistically, at least, The O’Rahilly was the essential rebel of 1916 Rising, although, I suppose, Patrick “H” Pearse may have been a contender too.