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“Aitch” or “Haitch”? A tiny note on memetics.
Although I haven’t written much on memes since 1976, I retain an interest sustained by those who have, such as Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett.
There can be no doubt that memes exist, in the form of non-genetic cultural replicators. What is less clear is the extent to which they are subject to a form of Darwinian selection. Do some memes have greater survival value than other? Remember that the survival in question is not survival of the organism but survival of the replicator itself.
The interesting examples are likely to reside in meme complexes (“memeplexes”) such as religions. However, more minor cases can be illuminating, and can give confidence in the general idea of memetic Darwinism. I’m thinking of fast-moving but trivial linguistic fashions, such as the rise of “basically” as a synonym for “um” or “er”. That is one that could be quantified by looking at written texts, although I don’t think it has been done. Here’s another example that would be harder to quantify, since it concerns pronunciation and isn’t written down.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name of the letter “H” is pronounced “Aitch”, in both British and American English. But increasingly today, the mutant form “Haitch” is spreading rapidly through the meme pool. A clear example of an evolutionary change. The analogy with genetic evolution offers three possible explanations:
Selection. Perhaps speakers just find it more logical that the name of a letter should include the sound of the letter itself? But in that case, why is the trend so recent?
Drift. Random drift always has to be in the background, if only as a null hypothesis.
Importation from a neighbouring meme pool, where it may be longer established. From Ireland, perhaps?
What do you think? When did you first notice the rise of “Haitch” in spoken English? Is the shift occurring in America as well as Britain? Or do Americans still adhere to the ”official” dictionary pronunciation? Is it true that “Haitch” is long established in Ireland?
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