Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sun Oct 5 15:15:16 UTC 2008

A correspondent on another list asserts a relationship with whether
the word is from German or French, affecting the pronunciation of the h.

>There is also a question of the history of the word, with a Germanic
>origin favouring the pronunciation of the initial h.  Some people
>used to say 'an hotel' because the word was originally French, and
>the vocabulary to do with heirs has French links (especially if we
>think of law French), while house comes from the Anglo Saxon
>hus.  Even in French itself, 'haie', which has links with the German
>'hecke', meaning 'hedge', has 'la' in front of it, rather than the
>l' which would be used before 'hotel'.  The French aren't exactly
>pronouncing the h, but that is their way of acknowledging its presence.
>Just one further ingredient in our crazy language....


At 10/5/2008 10:45 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>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 -

The American Dialect Society -

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