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Is there some articulatory reason behind why we choose to preface consonant sounds with the article a and vowel sounds with an? The reasoning I've read in the comments somewhere, I don't remember exactly where, is that we are trying to avoid consecutive vowel sounds, but why exactly are we trying to avoid these consecutive vowels? Are they harder to articulate for some reason? (If so, can that be explained as precisely as possible?) Are there many cases that can pointed to in English where we similarly avoid consecutive vowel sounds? Why not dipthongnize the vowels? Is the whole thing mere idiosyncrasy on English's part?

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What got me on this tack was thinking of the speech of Cockney speakers, and how they have no problem with articulating consecutive glottal stops -- as in "She spoil''t" -- I'm wondering why consecutive vowels sounds should be so much "harder" to say that they garner a fundamental rule of their own. –  Uticensis May 28 '11 at 15:03
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@nohat's answer to this question points to a definition of sandhi which I think may shed some light on the issue. If you have JSTOR access, you might investigate Word Boundaries and Sandhi Rules in a Natural Generative Phonology. –  Robusto May 28 '11 at 15:12
    
@Robusto Nice link...unfortunately I don't have JSTOR access for a few weeks yet. –  Uticensis May 28 '11 at 15:14
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This is a cool Linguistic question... Don't waste them before the Linguistics SE goes Beta! :D –  Alenanno May 28 '11 at 16:14

2 Answers 2

"Are there many cases that can pointed to in English where we similarly avoid consecutive vowel sounds?" I'm not English, but the a/an questions reminds me of the word 'idea', that it's often pronounced as if followed by a sort of 'r' prefacing vowel sounds (i.e. 'idea of...'): [ai'di:ə]. According to the IPA, 'ə' is used as in British English 'butter'. As you say, it must due to a co-articulatory reason (vowels are open, palatal sounds, and it may be somewhat difficult, if not unpleasant, to pronounce two of them in a sequence and the speaker seems to need an 'infix' to interrupt the continuum). But then why written English follows the same rule? There it's not an articulatory problem... F. A. P.S. I am Italian, but my last name has a foreign orygin and it's often mispronounced. The interesting fact is that the first letter is 'A', followed by a 'd': well, almost every Italian inserts 'n' between the two, apparently for euphonic reasons.

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you only get a schwa in English English butter: up here in Scotland we pronounce our r's even at the end of words. –  AAT May 28 '11 at 21:56
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And we pronounce them in the U.S., too, away from New England, New York, and the South, where lots of R's get left off. –  Ryan Dec 20 '11 at 19:51
    
Idear is but one example (we have a question on that). Intrusive R is rather common in English. –  RegDwigнt Jul 19 '12 at 12:36

Try saying "a idea" (a pronounced with schwa sound) in a lazy and somewhat sleepy tone of voice. That should explain to any listeners the reason for it. Once the speaker is awake and tries to say it distinctly, he will probably also find out why it is that way. If you are talking fast, it is almost impossible to hear. If you don't get what I mean, it is rather hard to say it and still be distinct.

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If you pronounced a as one does the name of the letter, that would give you a glide to separate it from the next sound. I’ve actually heard people do this instead of turning it into an. –  tchrist Jul 19 '12 at 12:24
    
First of all, "it is rather hard to say" precisely because you are not used to it. Had you learned "a idea" from your mother, that's what you'd be using. Second of all, this theory completely ignores the fact that out of the two indefinite articles, an is the original form; a developed much later. So the question is not, why do we say "an idea" and not "a idea", but rather why do we say "a deer" and not "an deer". Even if we subscribe to the "easier to pronounce" argument (which, again, we must not), certainly "an deer" is not hard to pronounce at all. You say "and" a hundred times a day. –  RegDwigнt Jul 19 '12 at 12:31

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