I just saw a number of comments complaining about the first n in the phrase ‘an Herculean task’, claiming it implied a mute h. But is that true? My impression has been that earlier all words on h + vowel got an an, regardless of whether or not the h was mute. Was ‘an hundred’ pronounced ‘an undred’?

PS. Let me be clearer that I am not asking about standard contemporary usage. I never doubted that ‘an Herculean task’ had an archaïc ring to it. But the fact that something is archaïc does not make it wrong.

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    This may be a British versus American thing. In the US it's supposed to be "a hundred" and "an hundred" sounds bizarre, but we say "an honor." – Matt Samuel Nov 1 '15 at 3:06
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    Agree with @MattSamuel. Some h's which are silent in BrE are voiced in AmE. I would never say "an Herculean task" or "an hundred", but would say, "an herb/hour/honor/etc. You need to consult an appropriate dictionary to learn which is which. – anongoodnurse Nov 1 '15 at 3:11
  • @medica actually the "h" isn't silent at all in those words in British English either I believe, they just have a different rule for the article. – Matt Samuel Nov 1 '15 at 3:12
  • @MattSamuel - Thanks! That makes it rather complicated. An Herculean? – anongoodnurse Nov 1 '15 at 3:14
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    @medica I believe the rule is just as the OP says, though my only knowledge of it is second hand from my wife who's from Guyana. – Matt Samuel Nov 1 '15 at 3:17

"An Herculean task" is acceptable because "Herculean" can be accented on the second syllable, and there are a number of speakers that drop the /h/ and use "an" for words that begin with an /h/ and are not stressed on the first syllable. (I live in New England, and there are quite a few people who do that here. I believe it's a lot less common in other regions of the US.)

I have no idea why "an hundred" was used, or how it should be pronounced. It used to be quite common, but it's fallen completely out of use today. However, in the last two or three centuries, it certainly has not been true that all words starting with /h/ got "an"; it has been "a horse" for the last three hundred years, while an hundred was quite common in 1800. (See Google Ngrams and consider Shakespeare's "my kingdom for a horse".)

Because there are several searchable versions of Shakespeare's works online, we can look at the words Shakespeare used "an" with. He always used an with

Hebrew, heir, heretic, honest, honour, hour, humble, hypocrite.

I believe we can conclude that he pronounced these without an "h" (even though there is only one instance of an Hebrew and an hypocrite).

He used "an" once each with

happy, hand, hasty, heroical, household,

and for all of these, there were several usages with "a" (at least if you count other forms, like haste, hero, house). So I assume these were generally pronounced with an /h/, and the forms like an household are exceptions for some reason.

For hundred, "an hundred" appears nine times, and "a hundred" thirty-one. So something different seems to be going on with "an hundred". You can tell from the scansion that Shakespeare pronounced hundred with the accent on the first syllable. So why "an hundred"? I don't know.

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  • a1661 T. Fuller Worthies (1662) Somerset 31 Mounted on an horse with ten toes. – Toothrot Nov 1 '15 at 12:03
  • a1400 Octouian 836 What thenkest dow be an horsmonger? – Toothrot Nov 1 '15 at 12:04
  • More exx. in OED. – Toothrot Nov 1 '15 at 12:05
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    Right ... if you go far enough back in English, an was used for all words, even ones that started with a consonant. So I suppose an lasted longer for words that began with an /h/, but Shakespeare used a horse. – Peter Shor Nov 1 '15 at 12:17
  • Interesting! do you have a source for this? – Toothrot Nov 1 '15 at 12:19

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