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The Expansionist
Friday, July 10, 2009
"An Historic" Idiocy. Twice in this evening's ABC World News broadcast, the odious phrase "an historic" was uttered. Charlie Gibson actually dared to say "an istoric", dropping the H-sound to justify the idiotic affectation of "an" before an H. No, Mr. Gibson, the H in "historic" is not silent — you stupid, stupid bastard. Do you say "the istory books"? If not, why would you say "istoric"? Because you're a pretentious, ignorant fool, that's why. You heard other people saying "an historic" so thought that was correct. But the rule is that "an" is used ONLY before a vowel sound. Sound. Not written letter.
That noxious affectation finds no justification in the history of English nor in the smooth flow of sounds. I also m now hearing "a" before vowels on television! Sometimes you can graciously forgive such use as accidental: the speaker started to say one word, that started with a consonantal sound, but at the last instant, after having already said "a", substituted a different word, that starts with a vowel, and chose not to backtrack to fix the indefinite article, lest that draw attention to the mistake. But I have heard "a" before vowels in what seemed well-considered statements. I have even heard President Obama say it at least once. Listeners who cannot believe the President of the United States would make such an inexcusable mistake dismiss such an utterance as a mere change of mind. Is it?
Here's a usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary online:
Word History: The forms of the indefinite article are good examples of what can happen to a word when it becomes habitually pronounced without stress. An is in fact a weakened form of one; both an and one come from Old English an "one." In early Middle English, besides representing the cardinal numeral "one," an developed the special function of indefinite article, and in this role the word was ordinarily pronounced with very little or no stress. Sound changes that affected unstressed syllables elsewhere in the language affected it also. First, the vowel was shortened and eventually reduced to a schwa [symbol]. Second, the n was lost before consonants. This loss of n affected some other words as well; it explains why English has both my and mine, thy and thine. Originally these were doublets just like a and an, with mine and thine occurring only before vowels, as in Ben Jonson's famous line "Drink to me only with thine eyes." By the time of Modern English, though, my and thy had replaced mine and thine when used before nouns (that is, when not used predicatively, as in This book is mine), just as some varieties of Modern English use a even before vowels (a apple).
Some warrant for the affectation "an historical" might be seen in the usage note at "a":
... Such adjectives as historic, historical, heroic, and habitual, which begin with an unstressed syllable and often with a silent or weakly pronounced h, are commonly preceded by an, especially in British English. But the use of a rather than an is widespread in both speech and writing: a historical novel; a habitual criminal. Hotel and unique are occasionally preceded by an, but this use is increasingly old-fashioned. Although in some dialects an has yielded to a in all cases, edited writing reflects usage as described above.
The key phrases above, however, that void any attempt to justify an absurd and irrational use by educated Americans of "an" before a sounded-H are: "British English" and "old-fashioned".
American news anchors and reporters should not be affecting old-fashioned British speech. It INSULTS modern Americans to tell them, in effect, that British English is better than American — when it is not remotely as good. As an example of the inferiority of British English, R-dropping dialects have hundreds more homonyms than American.
The United States has always been more literate and educated than Britain, in that universal education was fundamental to American democracy but not to British monarchy. The discrepancy in educational levels continues to this day, and American, not British, is the prestige version of what we still charitably call the "English" language but which is actually a world language, 70% of whose native speakers live in the United States. "English" is the most important language in the history of the world, and hundreds of millions of people, in many countries on all continents, are trying to master it at any given time. People listening to American English as spoken by major broadcasters should be able to rely on the correctness of the usage and pronunciation they hear. They should not have to find usage notes in dictionaries to try to grasp why some speech exemplars refuse to abide by a simple, elegantly logical rule: use an before a vowel sound.
If Charlie Gibson doesn't say "an history", he should be slapped down when he says "an historical". Anyone in an American news organization who says "an historical" should be suspended without pay for a month for each such ignorant and irritating utterance.
(The current U.S. military death toll in Iraq, according to the website "Iraq Coalition Casualties", is 4,322 — for Israel.)

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