H? How Do You Spell That?

From time to time I will come across a reference to a letter from another alphabet used for one purpose or another, in which the letter is named by name–Greek omega, epsilon, alpha, etc.; Hebrew aleph, beth…;

It always struck me as interesting that, at least as far as I know, the letters of our own alphabet do not have names you can write down, or at least not with official spellings. I mean, they have pronunciations, as per the child’s alphabet song, but they are only listed in the dictionary as if the letter spelled itself. [A (noun). First letter of the alphabet…].

I will accept that the name of the letter A is spelled a, but b should be bee or bea or bie, certainly not “b”,…

Why is there no official spelling for aitch, doubleyew, wigh, cea, etc? Is this generally true of the Roman alphabet as pronounced in other languages as well?

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I think the difference here is the Romanizing of the Greek alphabet. Remeber that the Greek letters look nothing like our own, so if you want to describe a Greek letter in English, you must resort to a phonetic translation using English letters. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that when the Greek want to spell “alpha”, they just use their letter.

“I think it would be a great idea” Mohandas Ghandi’s answer when asked what he thought of Western civilization

I know that a couple of years ago in the national spelling bee (what did I do before there was ESPN2?) they asked some poor kid to spell “H”. He asked for a definition, and they said, “the letter H”.

I don’t recall what he did, but it may have been exactly what I would have done–“H. H. H.”. He was wrong, though–it was “aitch”. Kid was screwed, in my opinion.

Dr. J

From Merriam-Webster Online

Main Entry: aitch
Pronunciation: <tt>'Ach</tt>
Function: noun

Etymology: French *hache, *from (assumed) Vulgar Latin hacca
Date: circa 1580
: the letter h

The AITCHES have it!

Brian O’Neill
CMC International Records

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But then again…

Main Entry: h
Pronunciation: <tt>'Ach</tt>
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural h’s or hs /<tt>'A-ch&z</tt>/
Usage: often capitalized, often attributive
Date: before 12th century
1 a : the 8th letter of the English alphabet b : a graphic representation of this letter c : a speech counterpart of orthographic h
2 : a graphic device for reproducing the letter h
3 : one designated *h *especially as the 8th in order or class
4 : something shaped like the letter H

Brian O’Neill
CMC International Records

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I can divide the 26 letters of the English alphabet into 6 groups:

  1. The names of these letters are pronounced by an “ee” sound after the sound of the letter:
  2. The names of these letters are pronounced by an “eh” sound before the sound of the letter:
  3. The names of these letters are pronounced by an “ay” sound before the sound of the letter:
  4. The names of these letters are pronounced by an “ah” sound before the sound of the letter:
  5. The names of these vowels are simply the long pronunciation of them:
  6. The names of these consonants require another consonant:
    H (aitch); Q (kyoo); W (duh…); Y (wie)

Some might argue about the categories I set up, such as putting “U” (yoo) into the sixth group. But the main thing I want to illustrate is that there are two distinct questions on the floor here:

  1. One would think that at least the last group (h,q,w,y) would have an “official” way of spelling the name of the letter. Why isn’t there any such official spelling?

  2. One could argue that the letters in the first five groups don’t really have names at all. Why not? All the Hebrew and Greek letters have real names! Why not in English?

(Please do not give answers along the lines of “because there is no official English Language Academy” – Greek and Hebrew letters have had official names for thousands of years.)

Lucky wrote

I don’t know Greek, but I can tell you this about Hebrew:

When the alphabet is used to number items in a list, as is done in English, yes, the letter is used on its own as Lucky suggests.

But there are situations where you are actually talking about the letter itself, such as the sections of a dictionary, or where the subject of the text discusses the alphabet (like this topic), and in those cases the actual spelled-out name of the letter is used. For example, “aleph” is spelled “aleph lamed feh”, and “beth” is spelled “beth yod thav”. These spelled-out words are also used when precision is important; this is analogous to the practice of writing numbers with both digits and words to eliminate errors and ambiguities.

Actually, since the Greek letters actually have their own names, the Greeks can and do spell them out. They also frequently use their letters as a numbering system, like Hebrew.

Cave Diem! Carpe Canem!

Crossword puzzles often include spelled out letters of the alphabet. EM, ESS, and GEE are the most common.

I disagree with one of Keeves’ classifications. “Z” should be in category six, rather than category one, since you need another consononat to pronounce it: “Zed”

Just want to see what it looks like when I spell them all out the way I think they should be.

Now I’ve spelled my aybecees, next time won’t you spell with me…

Ahem… pardon me… it’s 2:30 a.m. and getting mighty silly out.

ObTWIAVBP… The pronunciations you are discussing are the USAn versions. In British English (for example) the letter ‘Z’ is pronounced ‘Zed’.

You just need a better dictionary Hunter.

Here are 490 free ones, www.onelook.com

I’m with Handy. My 1976 American Heritage (not a great dictionary but not terrible) has spellings for all the letters. The only one I see with multiple spellings is zee/zed. If you check out my ACRONYM’s thread you’ll see that I used the word “ess” several times. (Though I spelled out the sounds of “FAQ” rather than spell the letters because I was making a point about how someone might say it.) If your dictionary doesn’t have these simple words, you need a new dictionary.

VileOrb, are those spellings, or are they pronunciations? If they are spellings, then I’d expect two separate entries, “zed” and “zee”, or perhaps only a “zee” listing, with a note “Brit: zed” or something like that. But if they are listed at the very top of “Z”, then I think you’ve got spellings there.

Here’s another interesting thing – Why is it that only MODERN English letters lack names? For example, the name of the letter “Þ” is “Þorn”, pronounced “thorn”.

Did the other letters in Old English have real names?

… and then there’s romance languages that call “Y” the “Greek I” or the equivalent (“Y” in french is I-Grec, in spanish it is I-Greigo, etc. etc.)

Just another orthographic curiosity

Jason R Remy

“And it could be safely said that at that moment, in the whole of India, no one, absolutely no one, was f^(king a goat.”
– John Irving A Son of the Circus (1994)

As far as I know, all languages using the Latin alphabet have short, simple names for the Latin letters (A-I, K-U, X), and those names sound alike, allowing for a certain amount of phonetic drift. At a guess, those names come directly from the original Latin names.

J, V, W, Y and Z (the first three are post-Latin variants of I and U; the last two were extra letters used in Latin only for spelling Greek words) tend to vary.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

Here’s how i would spell the letters:A-Ei, B-Bi, C-Si, D-Di, E-I, F-Ef, G-Ji, H-Eich, I-Ai, J-Jei, K-Kei, L-El, M-Em, N-En, O-O, P-Pi, Q-Kyu, R-Ar, S-Es, T-Ti, U-Yu, V-Vi, W-Double Yu, X-Eks, Y-Wai, Z-Zi :). Notice they are spelled not with the usual English ways to spell the sounds, its more like a Japanese way to do it.