Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Oct 5 05:52:22 UTC 2008

> 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 pronounced "an universal".

A quick glance at Google Books shows "an universal", "an unique", etc.
quite routinely in the early 19th century ... alongside (also routine)
versions with "a". Sometimes both choices appear on the same page, so
apparently there was more-or-less free variation orthographically.
Pronouncing dictionaries of the time seem to show initial /ju/ or so for
these words (no initial /u/). It's not only "uni-" words; I see similar
variation with (e.g.) "usual", "ubiquitous", "eulogy" (but not with
(e.g.) "yellow").

My naive speculation is that (however the word was pronounced, and I
think it was pronounced with /ju/ usually) the initial phoneme in these
words was taken to be 'really' a vowel (/u/ or /y/ or whatever) (based
on Greek, Latin, and/or French pronunciation), thus the "an".

One example: with the phrase "universal medicine" in Walker's
dictionary, "an" seems to appear up to 1828, "a" from 1830 on.

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society -

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