Sunday, April 14, 2013

In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen!

If one more news personality places the article “an” before the word “historic” or “historical,” I’m going to have an hissy fit.

See?  Sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it?

Editor Judy Vorfield succinctly sums up the situation here, where she writes: “Using ‘an’ is common, but not universally accepted by experts.”  A gentle and noncommittal way of saying it ain't technically correct.  In other words, the usage falls into that ugly and contentious prescriptivist (it’s against the rule, so don’t do it) versus descriptivist (it’s the way people really talk, so it’s de facto legit) pissing match.

"An historic change in leadership is taking place..."  Oy, ‘eaven ‘elp me…

First of all, "a," not "an," is used before a consonant-initial word. And let me be clear for the non-linguists out there... A consonant is not a letter, it is a sound.  A vowel is not a letter, it is a sound.  So the word "honest" starts with a VOWEL, or, just to be clearer, a "vowel sound."  Now, if this were Cockney England, somewhere around Eliza Dolittle's old guttertown, then the letter [h] in "historic" would be silent, leaving the initial sound of "historic" instead as what we as kids learned to call the short-i vowel sound, making "an" the correct article, no different than if we were to say "an idiotic perspective," or "an imbecilic notion."

Or, if an American were trying to somehow channel Monty Python, having a bit of fun, perhaps, and pronounce the word /Is-'tor-Ik/, then again, the "an" would be correct.

However, "an" before a perfectly good American /h/-word is an artificial creation by pretentious wannabes (kind of like how Mariah Carey sometimes lapses into a faux British accent on American Idol, I guess she thinks it makes her sound deep or something?), rather like those types who use "whom" indiscriminately instead of "who" because they think it sounds more erudite.

Bollocks, I say.

But let’s make it a little more interesting.  Let’s allow for the possibility that “an historical moment” is perfectly acceptable to say by an American who is not currently trying to sell some flowers to Colonel Pickering.  Let’s compare: "A history class" vs. "An historical moment..."  Now, I think we all can agree (even the pretentious types who would actually say “an historical moment with a straight face) that “an history class” is just, well, bad.

The key determining factor seems to be the stress of the [h]-initial syllable: "History" is stressed on the first syllable [his], therefore it is much less likely to lenite (weaken to near silence). In "historic(al)" the stress is on the second syllable [tor], not the first syllable [his], so the weaker (unstressed) syllable [his] is much more susceptible to lenition, becoming less, well, "consonantal." Vorfield states, "Before a word starting with a pronounced, breathy 'h,' use 'a.'" Which is exactly my point. The (currently, empirically) incorrect use of "an" at most signals, maybe, a gradual trending in American phonetics towards a softening of non-stressed word-initial [h].  But even that would imply an order of operations that is not extant: The pronunciation of "historical" has not changed over the last generation or two in American English; the only thing that has changed is the active choice to start using "an" beforehand instead of "a." 

Some years ago, I voiced this particular pet peeve to a favorite professor of mine (who shall remain nameless since I’m sure he doesn’t want me dragging him into my petty dramas).  An English professor by trade and a historical linguist and classicist by avocation, I figured he would be the perfect one to hear my desperate plea.  He responded thus:
“To get your adrenaline flowing over usage questions bespeaks an addiction to adrenaline more than a devotion to the queen’s idiom, but we all have our peeves.  You’ve put the case pretty clearly—and correctly—in your statement, but don’t expect reformation.  Even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage—a ‘must have’ for language mavens—concedes that in speech ‘an historical’ prevails, even in ‘American’.  In that case, and a couple of others, the editors cop-out by letting us do as we please based upon our particular pronunciation of the ‘h’ word in question.”

My take is simply that people who say it are trying to sound important, and are deliberately sacrificing correctness at the altar of pomposity.

Which is clearly an heretical thing to do… (oh, snap!)

Or am I just a crusty old prescriptivist?  You tell me, I’m just…


  1. chauvinism and pomposity. not linguistics. so much sturm und drang over so little when in fact it is in fact just how people really do speak.

    1. People commit crimes; it is in fact just how people really do act. Should we abandon laws as oppressively prescriptivist? I think it's fair to apply the word "integrity" in both cases and in much the same way; i.e. something to strive for. However, I do not deny that few people cleave to all "prescribed" norms (linguistic or otherwise).

  2. It's Hertford, please, not Hartford. The former is about 20 miles north of London, so would be known to Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Eliza Doolittle.
    Hartford is in Cheshire, about 170 miles north-north-west of London. That's so far away that it might as well be on another planet. Or in Connecticut, which is surely the same thing to Londoners of the 1950s.