>> Does one use "a" or "an" before the word "historical?"
>> Example: a/an historical event

>It was my impression that the rule for "BBC English" is that if the 
>initial syllable of the "h" word is unstressed (historical) one uses 
>"an", whereas if it is stressed (history), one uses "a".

>In the United Snakes, hardly anyone would use "an" before any kind of
>an "h" (or do a mean a "h"?).

>In Canada, we tend to fall in the middle, as usual--some do, some don't.
"A" (pronounced /@/, a simple shwa sound) goes before pronounced consonants, including the ones that are actually pronounced in words that are spelled with vowel letters. Examples:
[Note: /b/, /y/, /w/, and /h/ are consonant phonemes]

    /@ bIg maen/                    a big man
    /@ yusf@l tul/                  a useful tool
    /@ w@ns@n@ layftaym ap@rtun@ti/ a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
    /@ hIst@ri nav@l/               a history novel
An /@n/ goes before pronounced vowels, including the ones that are actually pronounced at the beginning of words spelled with silent consonant letters like "H".
    /@n awr t@ kIl/                 an hour to kill
    /@n istor@k@l nav@l/            an historical novel
History is pronounced by some with an /h/ and by others without an /h/. And often both ways by the same people, in different contexts. And so is historical. But the -ic(al) suffix is a stress-shifter; when it's added to a root the stress moves rightward one syllable (hístory vs históric, autómata vs automátic, térrify vs terrífic, etc). That in turn means the first syllable becomes unstressed, and in unstressed syllables in English there's a much higher likelihood of dropping /h/.

In fact, that's how I say it most of the time. I'd say a history professor because I say an /h/ in history, and an historical novel because I drop the /h/ most of the time in historical.

i So the stress is a factor, but the stress rule is just a description of some cases, not a rule to follow in all. The rule to follow in all cases is that the nature of the actual sound that comes out in speech controls whether we use a or an.

Which means that we readers can hear, in our mind's ear, the famous "authorial voice" actually saying a HUD loan or an HTTP term.

Acronyms like HUD and HTTP are a source of problems with this rule, since the consonant letter names often start with vowels (/Ef, ar, Es, ElEmEno/, etc), and those acronyms that are always spelled out will look funny, like an hour. When I encounter a NP in something linguistic I'm reading, I am notified thereby that the writer would have said it a Noun Phrase, rather than an NP (/@nEnpi/), which is the way I'd say it.

Incidentally, many English speakers make precisely the same distinction between pronouncing the as /dhi/, rhyming with me, before anything you'd use an with, and /dh@/, rhyming with Duh! (there aren't that many other words with final shwa in English :-), before anything you'd use a with. It's exactly parallel to a / an, and in fact it's a standard example in Intro Ling classes, but it's easier not to notice because they're both spelled the same. Our spelling system can distinguish most consonants, but doesn't do so well for the vowels; not surprising -- it's really Middle English spelling.

  - John Lawler       Linguistics Department and Residential College     University of Michigan

    "Language is the most  massive  and  inclusive  art  we know,  a           - Edward Sapir
      mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."       Language (1921)

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