Thursday, December 08, 2005

A most indefinite article

Again, BT3 has tapped on GN's skull, hoping to tap the brain that lies therein. Of course, the skull in question is a metaphor for this website; I don't know what the tap is a metaphor for but I'm sure there's some form of head adornment we can decide on for that purpose at a later date. Anyway, this indeterminate time period's question is:

'An' historic.

Why through Jehovah's own eyeballs would it be an historic?

While you think of a response, I'll just straddle an horse and ride through an house on the way to an harbour, where I'll seat myself and the horse in an hearse anticipating our arrival. We'll chat and sing Gaelic (an) hymns as the driver drives us to an hospital for the really good drugs.

Hail me a taxi, dear Nazi, for I want to get off this crazy ride called journalism.

Posted by BT3 to grammar nazi at 12/07/2005 08:19:45 PM

Well, BT3 (if that is your real name), the rule covering the use of the indefinite article when it comes up against an aspirate is rather a simple one, complicated only by the fact that it's a rule that crosses over from the grammatical to the linguistic.

And now I'm just wondering whether I'm going to have to work out a way to put little diacritical marks above certain letters or syllables in order to explain this by example... no... hang on, I think I can cover it just using italics and/or capitals. On with the fun...

You may have been told (or you may not, how would I know?) that you use a before a consonant and an before a noun. This is almost right. The important thing to remember is that the use a or an, is determined not by spelling but by pronunciation. If you were saying 'a egg,' for example, you'd have to put a glottal stop after the a or slur the words together, much like people do when they're pretending to be drunk. We English speakers seem to be rather uncomfortable with glottal stops as they interrupt the flow of whatever rubbish it is we're talking and make it sound as though we're stuttering.

Interestingly, a few words were actually formed (or at least, altered) this way (by which I mean the insertion of an n between an a and another word). The word apron used to be the word napron (it comes from the same group of words that gives us napery, napkin and nappy) but you can see how similar it sounds to say 'an apron' and 'a napron'. People didn't used to write much in the 1500s, so when they did learn, they had a go at spelling it and stuffed it up. (Middle-age people... sheesh!)

Another English peculiarity is the tendency to drop aspirates from the beginnings of certain words, especially from those beginning with h*. The example they always used to give in primary school was heir. We were told to say 'an heir', just as if we were talking about the stuff we breathe. We also usually say 'an hour', completely dropping the pronunciation of the initial consonant.

These days though, we would never say 'an horse', 'an harbour' or 'an hymn'. I'm not sure if we ever would have (I'd have to do more reading to find out). Why then would we say 'an historic' or 'an horrific'? Well, these two words are pronounced hisTOric and hoRIffic. The emphasis is on the middle syllable; and our preference as English speakers is never to have consecutive stressed syllables ('c'mon you syllables... just calm down... don't stress'). The trouble is that when you produce an aspirate consonant (the sound h), it's actually a bit of an effort to get all that air to come out of your throat, so you're kind of producing a stressed noise (try saying history and then historic; you'll find it more comfortable pronounce the h in the word where the first syllable is stressed). So how do we avoid having two stresses together? Simple, drop the h. And what happens when we drop the h? There are now two vowel sounds together, so we need to use an instead of a.

*This whole question has raised the issue of how, now that we're a literate society, spelling often dictates pronunciation, whereas back before printing really caught on, there were any number of ways to spell a word, depending on the way you said it (we've all read Shakespeare's poems and said 'that's stupid. It doesn't even rhyme!'). These days, people are much more likely to look at the way a word is spelt (a word such as historic and say to themselves 'Well, that starts with an h, so I'd better pronounce it'. But it's not always the way it should be said, or has been said for centuries up till now. Street names are often a good way to illustrate this. There's a street in my home town called San Mateo Ave. If you know anything about Romance languages, you can see that San Mateo is probably Spanish and means Saint Matthew. It would be pronounced /SAN mə-TAY-oh/. I grew up in an isolated country town in Australia, where the Spanish-speaking population hovered at around 0.001%, so people would see the letters, sound them out in their head, and to this day, that street is pronounced /SAN MATTYoh/.

It's similar in my new hometown of Adelaide, where there are street names such as Dequetteville and Waymouth and a suburb called Greenwith. Now, because I have prior knowledge of French names and English place names, and because I didn't grow up here listening to the way the locals said them, I would pronounce the above three names /də-KET-ə-vil/, /WAY-məth/, and /GREN-əth/. But people here prefer to spell out their foreign place names, calling them /də-kWETT-ə-vil/, /WAY-MOUTH/ (giving both syllables equal stress) and /GREENwIth/ (actually enunciating the /i/ sound in the final syllable, rather than producing an unstressed 'schwa', /ə/, or neutral vowel sound).

No one's really right or wrong, I suppose. It all comes down to local variations which are all perfectly valid. It's interesting though.


Kaufman said...
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Kaufman said...
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Oa said...

The problem as I see it is that when newsreaders and their ilk say "an historic" now they INVARIABLY pronounce the "h" in "historic" (perhaps not realizing what the justification is for the "an" in the first place.) They usually don't have much of a stress on the second syllable, either, if they have one at all.

Surely this is incorrect, by your own logic?

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