or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Aspirate Overdose

Yesterday (or maybe it was the day before) I got an email from Amazon.ca suggesting a book I might like to own based on another book I had ordered from them. The proffered title was "A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults" by Ambrose Bierce. While it did seem like the kind of thing I would like, it occurred to me that Bierce was out of copyright, and the chances were that I would find the book for free online, which turned out to be the case.

I started to read it, and what do you know? I disagreed with his very first blacklisted fault!

A for An. "A hotel." "A heroic man." Before an unaccented aspirate use an. The contrary usage in this country comes of too strongly stressing our aspirates.

That might--might--have been the case in 1909, when the book was published, but not even a generation later, Henry Fowler, in his revolutionary 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, called this position "pedantic", and it's clear from Bierce's tone that the aspirated "h-", and the corresponding "a" rather than "an", was already common in his time, and that he didn't like it. A true prescriptive grammarian!

It hardly needs noting than in English, a vowel sound is preceded by the indefinite article "an", while a consonantal sound takes "a". There are no exceptions to this rule.

Words with an unaspirated "h-" in English are from French, and there aren't that many of them left: "hour", "herb" (in North American English), "honest", and "heir" (along with "heiress" and "heirloom") come to mind, and there are probably a few more, but only a few. In contrast, there are a great many words beginning with "h-" in English that are and invariably aspirated, mostly from German: "house", "home", "hot" and "heat", "hail", "holy", and "hack", for starters.

And then there is a third category: words that used to be pronounced with an unaspirated "h-", but now, through a process called "hypercorrection", are aspirated. These are also French borrowings, of course, and include Bierce's maligned "hotel" and "heroic", along with "herb" (in British English), "humble", "historic", and "human". It is possible to precede these words with "an", but only if you drop the aitch. If you hear someone say "an 'istoric event", then you may criticize the lack of an aspirate, but you can't fault their indefinite article. However if they say "an historic event", then you know that they are mistaken, or pretentious, or both.

Only tangentially related, but amusing: "oboe" is the Italian word for the musical instrument that in French was called the "hautbois", literally "high wood", because it was the highest-voiced of the woodwinds. "Haut" has, of course, an unaspirated "h-", and "hautbois" was absorbed into English as "hautboy", pronounced "oh boy", before the Italian term took over in the early 18th century.


Blogger D.J. said...

I believe that hypercorrection is also what causes my annoying coworker to constantly -- constantly! -- say things like "When I spoke to he...." All I can do is sit there and attempt to be as quiet as possible when I involuntarily grind my teeth.

Thursday, April 08, 2010 10:02:00 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Whenever I see or hear "an historic" I GO INSANE. What about "u," though? Sometimes it takes an "a" rather than an "an."

Thursday, April 08, 2010 10:53:00 PM  

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