George Orwell ends his essay The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) with (emphasis mine):

And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class … may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.

Earlier in the same book, he comments that (again emphasis mine) In almost any revolt the leaders would tend to be people who could pronounce their aitches.

I am missing some context to understand this; probably both due to me not being a native speaker, and due to the comment relating to a situation 80 years ago. In both cases, Orwell is discussing class distinctions and class prejudice, so pronouncing the aitches is presumably a pars pro toto for a larger sociolect belonging to a particular class (and to non-linguistic class distinctions as well). But he chose to describe it by aitches, so that must be or have been a major characteristic.

How did the pronunciation of the h within England in the 1930s depend on class, and is still still true today?

Edit: (I am aware that this is a reference to Marx' they have nothing to lose but their chains , but my question is rather about the sociolect he is referring to than about the historical or political context)

2 Answers 2


This is a jocular reference to Marx and Engels' 1848 Communist Manifesto, which ends (in the 1888 translation by Samuel Moore):

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Although dropping initial [h]s has never been characteristic of all British non-standard dialects, from the late 19th century onward it was common 'eye dialect' in literary and stage representations (on both sides of the Atlantic) of lower-class British speech, a sort of metonymic emblem. For instance, alongside your Orwell quote you may set this from Lerner and Lowe's 1956 adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion:

Hear them down in Soho Square
Dropping aitches everywhere
Speaking English any way they like.

The corresponding emblem for middle-class linguistic aspirations was the overcorrective intrusion of initial [h]; speakers were often depicted as employing both errors in the same utterance:

   “Hi’ve got henemies, miss,” he explained, “henemies has ’as sworn to ’ave my ’art’s blood, let alone rewenging my good name, and reporting on me at the station when Hi hain’t done nothink.” —Sala, Quite Alone, 1864

  • 1
    This is an insightful and relevant comment, but it does not answer my question such as posed in the final line of my post. My question is rather a linguistic one (or I would have asked at History.SE), how did/does the pronunciation of h vary with class in England (1930s or today)? Orwell assumes the reader knows this, and a middle-class reader in 1930s England probably did, but I don't. Have the middle-class maintained their aitches?
    – gerrit
    Sep 16, 2016 at 11:02
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    @gerritt Wikipedia has an article on H-Dropping which addresses the distribution. My point is that the actual use of this feature is irrelevant: Orwell is alluding to it as a literary emblem, not a linguistic fact. Sep 16, 2016 at 11:25
  • Yes, but to understand its use as a literary emblem one would need to understand the linguistic fact.
    – gerrit
    Sep 16, 2016 at 12:52
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    @gerrit I'm afraid that popular notions of speech, and the works of writers, pedagogues and politicians addressed to those notions, have historically had very little to do with linguistic fact. Sep 16, 2016 at 14:47
  • Would you say that the popular characterisation/implication of aitches-pronunciation with class, that Orwell is alluding to (thanks for the H-dropping link, by the way; that is very informative), is not particularly factual?
    – gerrit
    Sep 16, 2016 at 15:18

My reading is that he is not talking about the pronunciation of the letter 'h' (correctly pronounced aitch) but the literal dropping (getting rid entirely) of the letter H in working class dialects.

So "have" becomes "'ave" and "his" becomes "'is"

the sentence: "Have you got his hat, Henry?" Becomes :"'ave you got 'is 'at, 'enry?"

The 'aitch' vs 'haitch' question: as I understand it, though pronunciation probably varies regionally, in general terms, the adding of h to aitch was the result of people being aware of the h dropping being considered working class and then incorrectly saying 'haitch' when trying to speak 'correctly'

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