Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Oct 5 01:50:53 UTC 2008

At 6:26 PM -0400 10/4/08, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>As near as I can tell -- although I'm beginning to doubt myself as a
>continue my recitals, particularly with historian - I say
>a hilarious anecdote
>an historian
>a universal joint
>Where am I from?  and when?

The first two are perfectly standard, given the unstressed vowel and
optionally suppressed /h/; I hear both "an historian" and "a
historian" all the time.  That's why I specified it's the occurrence
of _an_ before a initial h- in *stressed* syllables that's so
striking (in the audio of the Jane Austen novels).  I'll go out on a
limb and predict that you don't say "an history".  Or "an Hillary

The occurrence of "an" before /yu/ in words like "universal" in
writers like Mill may, I'm guessing, be a kind of orthographic
version of spelling pronunciation, but I have no idea how he would
have pronounce "an universal".  I assume that Austen would have
pronounced "an hill" or "an house" the way she spelled them.


>At 10/4/2008 10:19 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>Leaving aside the case of "an hero", which as noted in the links may
>>be infected with the French pox, and sticking to native words with
>>initial h- in stressed syllables, I'm not entirely sure when the
>>transition from "an hXXXX" to "a hXXXX" occurred, but:   Slightly
>>less than 200 years ago, Jane Austen was still having her characters
>>talk in informal conversation about "an hill", "an house", "an happy
>>man", etc., all quite consistently (through _Persuasion_, completed
>>in 1816).  I haven't done a systematic (or even unsystematic) search
>>of indefinite article sandhi in the earlier 19th century, but it may
>>also be worth noting that as late as 1843 John Stuart Mill was still
>>referring to "an universal" (although of course this is not
>>"naturally spoken" English).  I don't know when "an" began to be
>>impossible before stressed /h/ and orthographic but non-phonological
>>vowels like the "u" of "universal", but evidently a bit later in the
>>19th c.
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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