Saturday, July 19, 2008

"An Historian": Bad English

Generally, I have pronounced prescriptivist leanings when it comes to language. For instance, I don't care how thoroughly "ten items or less" has entered common usage. I still believe that "less" is inherently continuous, and "fewer" is discrete, for a reason. There's sufficient linguistic justification for keeping these words separate and distinct. I still observe the distinction between "who" and "whom", at least in writing. And I don't believe that "effort" should ever be a verb, or that "thusly" is a word at all.

However, there seems to be some idea that "historian" (as well as "historical" and occasionally other related words as well) needs to have the article "an" attached to it. That is ludicrous. It defies all the conventions of modern English. Say you were talking about one mathematician. How would you say that? Clearly, it would be "a mathematician". Now, your pronunciation of that might change depending on your intention. If you're talking about any old guy (or girl) who professes math for a living, then you might schwa the "a", as in "uh mathematician". You might do the same thing, if you want to emphasize the fact that you're talking about a mathematician as opposed to a biologist or a chemist. Or, you might use a long "a", as in "ay mathematician", to emphasize one of them, as opposed to two or three or five or eight.

Would you ever use "an mathematician"? Of course not. That's because "mathematician" starts with "m", and "m" is a consonant. In English, we use "a" as the indefinite article for words that begin with consonants. Another example: do describe one surgeon, you would say "a surgeon", again pronouncing the "a" differently depending on your intention. And finally, you'd say "an economist", because "e" is a vowel.

Any kindergarten teacher would agree with me that there are five vowels in English: a, e, i, o, u. Sometimes "y" us added to the vowel list, or more accurately, it's always added to the "sometimes a vowel list". In some languages, the "w" sound is also a semivowel. But you know what's never a vowel? The letter "h". Therefore, it never makes sense to use "an" for any word beginning with "h".

Now, before anyone says "but there's a reason for that!", I know the linguistic justification. I don't believe it's a very good one. The word comes from French, from "histoire" or "historien". French has this lazy habit of not pronouncing their leading "h" on words, probably because they don't like how it sounds. In English, we do pronounce the leading "h". All the time. It's not "otel", it's "hotel". It's not "air", it's "hair". We would say "an air", true. And if "istorian" were a word, then "an istorian" would make perfect sense. But it's not. The word is "historian", with a pronounced leading consonant. That means it's completely incorrect to use "an": a false analogy from a language we do not speak.

Currently listening: "Colors", Kira Willey (you know that Dell commercial, "I am green today," etc.? That song)

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