Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Oct 5 14:45:47 UTC 2008

At 10:59 AM +0100 10/5/08, Michael Quinion wrote:
>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
>My subscribers often query my writing "an hotel", which is an old-
>fashioned British usage. I'm happy with "an historian", too ... This may
>be relevant:
>I have lived to see great changes in this respect. I have known the mute
>"h" to become audible, and the audible "h" to become mute. I was taught to
>pronounce the words "humble", "hospital", "herbs", and "honest" without an
>"h", and can't get out of my old fashion without a struggle.

Right; thanks, Michael.  I should have specified that one would
expect the "an" to surface for h- words pronounced without an initial
/h/ due to other reasons than lack of stress on the initial syllable
("historian", "historical", "hilarity").  We discussed the issues
with "hero" and I would classify those (variable) U.K. pronunciations
of "hospital" and "herb", and everyone's pronunciation of "honest",
in the same way (I believe I alluded to the French pox in this
connection).  I'd forgotten that "humble" was in this group too; the
OED notes that the /^mb at l/ pronunciation persisted to the 19th c.  No
wonder "umble pie" was reanalyzed!

>people now talk of "hospital", "humble", "herb",

--talk of them with initial /h/ I assume.  "Herb" is interesting in
that it's the U.S. pronunciation that traditionally drops the h- ("an
herb"), although not for the unrelated proper name ("a Herb[ert]")
and the U.K. one that traditionally retains it.

The cases of "an hill", "an house", "an heart", "an heavy (heart)"
from Austen remain hard to explain (although their disappearance
isn't), since neither she nor her characters were born within the
sound of Bow bells.  The only other conclusion is that the "a"/"an"
alternation was not strictly morphophonemic through the early 19th c.
but in part morphographic.  (I wonder if Michael's "a honest..." cite
below is an instance of morphographic alternation in its own way, or
if it really does indicate a /han at st/ difference in phonology...)


>and I have heard people
>talk of a "honest" man. [Samuel Lysons, "Our Vulgar Tongue" (1868)]
>Michael Quinion
>Editor, World Wide Words
>E-mail: wordseditor at
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list