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?

  • 1
    It depends who was speaking, I suppose. For some in 'untingdon, 'ereford and 'ertfordshire, 'urricanes, 'ardly ever 'appen!
    – WS2
    Jul 22, 2014 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, 2014 at 7:12
  • In any case, note that these are all stressed syllables from which Miss Doolittle is dropping aitches. Jul 22, 2014 at 8:02
  • @Peter I think one only capitalises the first letter, which has been omitted, so I think WS2 is correct. Jul 22, 2014 at 12:42
  • I am also in the UK and have not noticed this at all.
    – Timmmm
    Jan 18, 2018 at 11:18

5 Answers 5


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Is it ‘a historical document’ or ‘an historical document’?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. Jul 22, 2014 at 16:48

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.


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.

  • 1
    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? Jul 22, 2014 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. Jul 22, 2014 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. Jul 22, 2014 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. Jul 22, 2014 at 8:19
  • 1
    @Janus: maybe that's why a smaller percentage of people today say "an hotel" than "an hallucination". Jul 22, 2014 at 12:17

Speaking as an old-timer, the guiding principle (local dialects aside) is the avoidance of a double glottal stop. We never say "a elephant", "a apple", or "a igloo" because the word "a" ends with a glottal stop, and all of these other words begin with a glottal stop. There are some African languages which make much use of glottal stops, but in English, we always seek to eliminate one of these two stops. This is what dictates the use of "a" versus "an". Now comes the leading "h". If the "h" is aspirated, then it is proper to use "a" before it--single glottal stop. If the "h" is silent (in a non-disputed word such as "honor") then "an" is the proper article. In general, stressed versus unstressed syllables do not come into play between words (though, it's English, so I'm sure that there are specific exceptions to this rule). Nowadays, though, everyone seems to debate this issue on spelling rather than pronunciation. This rule of avoiding double glottal stops dates back to ancient Greek.

I live in the States, and have noticed a shift to "an historic" (with an aspirated "h"). As best I can tell, the folks who speak this way think it makes them sound educated--fail.


Looking up the phonology of historic in

And all of these sources phonetically have a /h/ indicating that the /h/ sound should be there when correctly pronouncing the word historic.

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