18

According to Biblehub and Bible Gateway, King James's Numbers 23:22 says:

God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

I don't have a hard copy to check. Is that simply a copied typo?

  • 9
    If it was pronounced /'unikorn/ instead of /'yunikorn/, then an would've been correct. A before consonants (including /y/), and an before vowels (including /u/). – John Lawler Sep 28 '14 at 21:58
  • @Peter: Not to mention which many AmE speakers use the (pure vowel?) "oo" where BrE uses the (diphthong?) "ee-oo", which together with the switch from /t/ to /d/ allows Family Guy to make puns on duty = doodie (doodie alluding to doo-doo = poo-poo = scatology rules!). I doubt there ever was a UK/US split on pronunciation of initial /u/ | /ju/; it's a bit strange that change only affects the vowel/diphthong in other positions. Dunno about final position in, say, fondue (which I say both ways!) – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '14 at 22:16
  • @FumbleFingers: we used to pronounce all the same 'u's you pronounce as /ju/, but we started being lazy and leaving out the /j/. But we're not lazy for 'u's that start words, or that follow /k/, /g/, /m/, /b/, /p/. So you can't pun on beauty/booty. – Peter Shor Sep 28 '14 at 22:34
  • @Peter: Bernard Mathews (unquestionably a Brit) trotted out bootiful for years. And you're quite right - it never sounded in the least "American". Not that I'm necessarily convinced it actually was valid Norfolk dialect, but that's the general impression the ad campaign gave. – FumbleFingers Sep 28 '14 at 22:41
  • It's probably worth noting that the King James version recorded on both of those websites underwent several revisions after 1611, with the last major one being in 1769 (any revisions after that go by other names). 1769 is well past the date when "an unicorn" ceased to be correct, but they let it be nonetheless. – Wlerin Sep 29 '14 at 0:19
29

No, it's not a typo. Words starting with u started with a diphthong until the 18th century. This was part of the Great Vowel Shift. The vowel started changing from /yː/ (its original vowel in French1) in Middle English, migrated through several diphthongs, and ended up at /juː/ sometime around the 18th century.

See Ngram.

1 At least the upper classes, who were descended from French-speaking Normans, used the original French vowel /y/ for French words spelled with 'u' in Early Middle English. I don't know whether there's any evidence for how the lower classes pronounced this.

  • 1
    Are you sure? This page seems to indicate "a" came after 1611. – Cees Timmerman Sep 28 '14 at 22:16
  • 1
    @Cees: Shakespeare used a before consonants and an before vowels (even in the original), and most of his plays were written before 1611. And if you want, you can compare the Ngram for an unicorn and an crocodile. Here. – Peter Shor Sep 28 '14 at 22:19
  • 1
    @CeesTimmerman How, exactly, does that page indicate that? – Wlerin Sep 28 '14 at 22:21
  • @Wlerin final -n in many verbal forms (infinitive, plural subjunctive, plural preterite) was lost, e.g. OE cuman > Modern English come (the n remains in some past participles of strong verbs: seen, gone, taken); final -n also lost in possessive adjectives "my" (OE min > ME mi) and "thy" (OE þin > ME þi) and indefinite article "an" before words beginning with consonant (-n remained in the possessive pronouns, e.g. mine) – Cees Timmerman Sep 28 '14 at 22:32
  • @CeesTimmerman Right, but that happened in Middle English, well before Shakespeare and King James. – Wlerin Sep 28 '14 at 22:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.