LINGUIST List 10.1071

Wed Jul 14 1999

Sum: Word-initial /h/

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Daniel Sokol, Word-initial /h/

Message 1: Word-initial /h/

Date: Wed, 14 Jul 1999 04:50:02 -0400
From: Daniel Sokol <>
Subject: Word-initial /h/

Well, I was wrong. The question wasn't quite so simple afterall and,
from the dozens of replies I received, things aren't much clearer.
The easy answer is this: if the h-word following the indefinite
article has a stressed first syllable (a HIStory), then it's a schwa
that precedes it. If this is not the case, then it's schwa + [n]: an
hisTOrical ... The easy answer is, of course, not the right answer -
at least in 1999. Some people simply expressed quasi-outrage that
someone could write 'an historical...' and others said that they are
perfectly happy saying it. Larry Trask, from the University of Sussex
(England), pointed out that /h/ was, at one point in the history of
English, on the verge of disappearing in word-initial position and
when that word had an unstressed first syllable. So people wrote 'an
historical ...' for the simple reason that it was pronounced
[anistorikl...]. However, the /h/ experienced a revival and so 'an
historical...' is a remnant of this. The majority of you who replied
said that you were 'a' people, as opposed to 'an' people, some of you
replied that it varied from word to word. One of you shrewdly
affirmed that the original King James version had 'an hat' and 'an
horse' but that all these have now been suppressed in modern-day
reprintings. Anyway, I'm glad I asked the question and thank you all
for taking the time to answer it.
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