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Here in the UK I have observed an odd change in perhaps the last five years and I’m curious to learn whether we have drifted away from or arrived at the correct pronunciation.

It seems that the “H” in historic has now become silent, e.g. this was an ‘istoric victory.

When I was at school I used to study “history” not “istory” so why the change? Surely the “H” should be silent in both instances or neither?

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    It depends who was speaking, I suppose. For some in 'untingdon, 'ereford and 'ertfordshire, 'urricanes, 'ardly ever 'appen! – WS2 Jul 22 '14 at 6:47
  • @WS2: Sorry to be pernickety, but shouldn't that be 'in 'Artford, 'Ereford and 'Ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen'? – Peter Jul 22 '14 at 7:12
  • In any case, note that these are all stressed syllables from which Miss Doolittle is dropping aitches. – Brian Donovan Jul 22 '14 at 8:02
  • @Peter I think one only capitalises the first letter, which has been omitted, so I think WS2 is correct. – Matt E. Эллен Jul 22 '14 at 12:42
  • I am also in the UK and have not noticed this at all. – Timmmm Jan 18 '18 at 11:18
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Although the h in historic should be pronounced according to several dictionaries I looked it up in, oxforddictionaries has the following interesting piece:

Is it ‘a historical document’ or ‘an historical document’? ‘A hotel’ or ‘an hotel’? There is still some divergence of opinion over which form of the indefinite article should be used before words that begin with h- and have an unstressed first syllable. In the 18th and 19th centuries people often did not pronounce the initial h for these words, and so an was commonly used. Today the h is pronounced, and so it is logical to use a rather than an. However, the indefinite article an is still encountered before the h in both British and American English, particularly with historical: in the Oxford English Corpus around a quarter of examples of historical are preceded with an rather than a.

So it seems that especially when the word is preceded by an indefinite article, the h gets dropped.

Apart from that, as WS2 mentions in his comment, there are plenty of speakers that will drop just about any initial h. I'm wondering if there isn't a named distinction between dialects that do and don't pronounce that h, similar to the rhotic - non-rhotic distinction.

  • 'So it seems that especially when the word is preceded by an indefinite article, the h gets dropped' by a sizeable minority. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 22 '14 at 16:48
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In the U.S., there are some dialects that pronounce an ‘h’ in an unstressed syllable only if it follows a vowel. So you would say “two historic” but “five ’istoric”.

If you speak one of these dialects, both “an ’istoric” and “a historic” are consistent with this rule. Some people use one, and some the other.

I suspect that this was also the origin of “an ’istoric” in the U.K. I can’t say what is going on with this pronunciation in the U.K. currently. But I'd be somewhat surprised if people used “two ’istoric” rather than “two historic” there.

1

There are probably several factors at play here. We'll need to discount accents like Cockney where h is generally not sounded anyway.

(1) In general, an h at the beginning of an unstressed syllable is silent in most accents of English: annihilate, vehicle. (I think some Irish accents might sound the /h/.)

(2) However, if this is an initial syllable (say hydrate), the rule is disregarded.

(3) There are style guides that indicate that an should be used before h if it occurs in an unstressed syllable, which results in some newspapers recommending writing an historic moment, for example, and a perception that this is the 'correct' way to write the phrase.

It seems to me that it is possible that as a result of (3), people are not pronouncing the /h/, because it is difficult to pronounce the /h/ after an /n/. It also seems to me that in speech, the 'an' joins up to 'historic', giving the impression of a trisyllabic word, and if you apply (1) above, the h should be silent.

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    The sounding of the h in hydrate is not an exception to your #1, for that is a stressed syllable, not an unstressed one. And if do we except initial syllables from rule #1, we except historic. Now, I wonder, has @TomH (whose own analogy with history flatly disregards the stressed/unstressed distinction) noticed any lack of aspirate in such expressions as "these historic actions," where an is not in the picture? – Brian Donovan Jul 22 '14 at 7:56
  • I wonder if this is not more complex than we give it ‘credit’ for. The stressed/unstressed distinction is of course important, but there seems to be a lot of lexical preference, too. Ngramming the different forms of historic and hotel shows similar pictures: they were more or less equal until around 1870 (hotel) and 1930 (historic), when a started becoming more and more common. Doing the same for hydration and Hasidic shows that a has always been vastly more common, with an barely registering at all in the latter case. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 22 '14 at 8:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I believe the initial H in Hasidic is of the same kind as that in Hanukkah, which represents so very rough an aspirate that it is sometimes spelled Chanukkah. So small wonder if it seldom or never has taken an an. – Brian Donovan Jul 22 '14 at 8:13
  • @Brian Perhaps it is only because of the frequent spelling Chanukkah, but I have always mentally thought of that word as having, as you say, a kind of rough, Semitic aspiration. Not so with Hasidic, which I have always just thought of as a normal h. Incidentally, hy(a)ena and humidity show the same pattern as hydration/Hasidic, while Homeric and hilarious show the same pattern as hotel/historic. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 22 '14 at 8:19
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    @Janus: maybe that's why a smaller percentage of people today say "an hotel" than "an hallucination". – Peter Shor Jul 22 '14 at 12:17

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