Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Oct 5 15:43:49 UTC 2008

> As in "An Universal Etymological English Dictionary". I've been told, and
> have written, that the old usage of "an" before words beginning in "u" is
> because the vowel was then said more like "oo". Am I wrong? What about "a
> useful"?

"Useful" was like the others, sometimes written with "a", sometimes with
"an", sometimes variably in the same work.

Here is Walker's discussion, dated 1806:

... see the long footnote on p. 24 and also the long note at the "an"
dictionary entry.

Walker seems to say that the initial 'long "u"' was pronounced with a
"y" /j/ initial consonant, but written (_in variance_ with speech) with
"an" because the 'rule' was to use "an" before vowels and "u" is
orthographically a vowel.

The question of "an" before initial "h" is also addressed here (on p. 58
Walker says initial "h" is/was pronounced, except in a short list of
words). He apparently recommends "an" before unstressed "h" (e.g.,
"heroic", "historical") -- even though this "h" is/was not mute -- but
not before initial "h" with first-syllable stress.

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society -

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