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French there is a process called liaison, where final consonants are omitted unless the next word starts with a vowel. Would it be accurate to say that the English indefinite article (a/an) is an example of this as well, or are these two separate words that mean the same thing?

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Essentially it's the same phonological process as French liaison, except that a and an are spelled differently as well as pronounced differently. A better example would be the pronunciation of the definite article the, which is exactly parallel with a/an. There are two allomorphs of the, just as there are of a(n) -- but they're spelled the same, so nobody ever notices. Unless they're learning English, in which case they have to be taught that /ði/ precedes vowels (just like an) and /ðə/ precedes consonants (just like a). There the change is due to sound alone, not spelling. – John Lawler Sep 18 '13 at 3:23
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They're both examples of a broader concept sometimes termed sandhi, basically meaning 'phonological processes occurring to glue words together'. Whether they're both examples of liaison depends on your point of view and on how you want to use that term.

If you use the term liaison very loosely to mean something informal like 'a consonant introduced between two words to join them together', then you could maybe class English a~an as an example of this. You might also class as liaison in English the 'r' sound you get between vowels in e.g. 'law-r-and order', 'Canada-r-in summer'.

But, from a more technical point of view, if you start to try and model the actual phonological processes that are happening in French liaison, the phenomenon has some fundamentally different characteristics in French compared to English. For example:

  • in French, liaison is generally far more 'optional' than in English than in the a~an case, though the case of 'intrusive r' is-- though reversed in terms of its sociolinguistic status [that's a fancy linguistic way of saying that liaison "sounds posher" in French than English]-- the process is maybe more similar;
  • in French, the phenomenon is clearly much more widespread than just a handful of words;
  • but on the other hand, unlike the case of 'intrusive r' in English, in French the choice of consonant is clearly part of the "definition" of the word to some extent and not just defined by a very general criterion such as 'vowel followed by vowel'-- e.g. if a speaker decides to make liaison in "beaucoup occupier", the liaison consonant will never come out as [z]*;
  • in French, the liaison consonant can occasionally surface on the end of the word in question even without the following vowel/liaison context;
  • in French, the presence/absence of liaison depends on a slightly 'deeper' surrounding syntactic structure than a~an in English.

So, it depends on how specifically you want to compare 'like with like' when applying the term to both languages. For reasons such as those above, I personally would avoid doing so.

[*] Actually, there are speech errors when this occasionally isn't true.

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A is a variant of an, which was itself a variant of one. An started to change into a from the 12th century onwards before a word that began with a consonant. In some dialects, it is still found even before words that begin with a vowel.

What this means is that an is not so much an instance of liaison as that a is an instance of elision, the process whereby sounds get left out. The /d/ sound in mashed potatoes, for example, gets lost in speech, although in that case the spelling is unchanged. Liaison, as Neil suggests, occurs in combinations such as ‘law and order’, where intrusive /r/ is sometimes heard before ‘and’.

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N.B. The history of the phenomenon is irrelevant to its phonological status today, though. – Neil Coffey Sep 19 '13 at 2:07
Then why do some dialects continue to use a before words beginning with a vowel? – Barrie England Sep 19 '13 at 5:42
Sorry, I may not have expressed myself clearly: the history may explain how the patterns we see today have got there, but to the phonological status-- i.e. the actual processes going on in speakers' heads and the question of whether "liaison" in French is the same as "liaison" in English, the history doesn't matter. (It can't possibly: speakers acquiring the language simply don't have this information as input.) Or to put it another way, "it doesn't matter how we got to this point; what matters is what point we have got to". – Neil Coffey Sep 19 '13 at 13:57

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