February 16, 2004

An hero ain't nothing but a hypercorrection

Geoff Pullum emailed a correction to my earlier post on "a(n) hero":

Nice work; but take out the first of the two 18th century quotes; it's irrelevant. "Heroic[k]" is a totally different case, because of the stress contour. There is a surviving affected dialect that has

*an history book an historical novel
*an heretic an heretical opinion
*an habit of stealing an habitual thief
*an hysterectomy an hysterical outburst
*an hero an heroic poem

Also "an hotel" for the really snooty. See THE CAMBRIDGE GRAMMAR, pp.1618-1619 (I wrote that bit; did I labor for nothing?? USE the book Mark, take it down from the shelf and LOOK in it).

Your point about "hero" is good: NO naturally spoken dialect, not even those of the people who stay in an hotel, says "an hero", nor ever has in two hundred years.

He's right -- I checked the book. But Geoff, it's not on line!

Glen Whitman wrote in with a similar observation (though he spared me the page numbers), and added that

many years ago my father was advised not to aspirate his H's and to use 'an' before nouns beginning in H, as a means of minimizing his southern accent in public speaking.

I cut the Addison "an heroick" quote from the earlier post. Perhaps Adams' "an hero" was a hypercorrection by a colonial with aspirations above his station -- I don't know the history -- but "an hero" does seem to be found pretty regularly around the time of Adams' letter, e.g.

But thou complying with thy princely wrath,
Hast shamed an Hero whom themselves the Gods
Delight to honour ... [Cowper's translation of Homer, about 1790]

Then Erjun, to the base a rod,
An Hero favour'd by a God [William "Oriental" Jones, "The Enchanted Fruit", about 1790]

along with a few (earlier?) instances of "a hero":

A Hero, whose bright Fame may gild thy Bays,
And more thy Name, than thou his Glory raise. [Edmund Arwaker, An Epistle to Monsieur Boileau (1694)]

Fancy that can to Clouds of Smoke give Light,
And trace a Hero through the dusky Fight. [Nahum Tate, A POEM ON THE PROMOTION OF SEVERAL Eminent Persons IN CHURCH and STATE (1699)]

What's up with the NYT remains a mystery. However, Robyn Stewart emailed two suggestions:

Any chance the cited "an hero" is a further dig at the quebecois? It wouldn't be unusual to hear a quebecois speaker say that, as a lot of people need to make a conscious effort to pronounce the h, but have internalized the practice of using an before a vowel sound.

I'd vote for plain old typo, though. Perhaps an intervening adjective was removed, and the an left. That's how "an consonant-noun" and "a initial-vowel-noun" get into my writing.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 16, 2004 06:56 PM