The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is an “h” called an “aitch”?

Q: Why is there a difference in the way consonants are named in English? The consonants “b,” “c,“ “d,” and others start with the sound of the letter and then add a vowel, while “l,” “m,” “n,” etc. begin with a vowel and then add the sound of the letter. And, of course, there’s the irregular “h.”

A: Good question. The answer is that nobody planned all this. The words we use today are pronunciations of the letters’ names handed down over many centuries.

The name of the letter “b,” for example, is explained this way in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“The second letter of the Roman alphabet, ancient and modern, corresponding, in position and power, to the Greek Beta, and Phoenician and Hebrew Beth, whence also its form is derived.”

So the ancients pronounced the name of the letter beginning with the consonant sound, and that’s probably why we say it today as “bee” instead of “eb.”

The name of the letter “m,” on the other hand, historically corresponds to the letter called mu in Greek and mem in Semitic languages.

So why do we pronounce it “em” in English? Because it was pronounced “em” in post-classical Latin from at least the fourth century, and English has adopted that pronunciation. The earlier Latin pronunciation is uncertain.

And the name “aitch” for “h,” the OED says, goes back through the Middle English ache to the Old French and Spanish ache, then probably to the late Latin accha, ahha, or aha. The earlier Latin name was ha and the Greek name was heta.

I won’t go through the whole alphabet, but you get the picture.

Why did the classical names for “m” and “h” change during the late Latin period? I don’t know. It’s Greek to me!

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