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The use of the articles 'a' and 'an' are related to the noun in which they precede. If the first letter of the noun is a vowel one would use the article 'an', and if the first letter is a consonant, the article 'a' is used. However there are exceptions to the rule, if the first letter of the noun is silent, and the second being a vowel, then 'an' would be used.

Example: We would say, 'an hour' not 'a hour', because the 'h' is silent.

When reading the Bible, the term 'an Hebrew' is used. Is this telling us how the noun 'Hebrew' was pronounced when the King James edition of the Bible was released? The pronunciation being silent in the 'h'.

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The King James Bible uses 'an' before h— whether or not the 'h' was silent.

For example, the King James Bible has:

An horse is a vain thing for safety: neither shall he deliver any by his great strength.

And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him an house, and made booths for his cattle: therefore the name of the place is called Succoth.

However, it appears that the 'h' in Hebrew was indeed silent back then. The word Hebrew came from Old French Ebreu, and the 'h' was added, like the 'b' in debt, so the spelling would better correspond with the original Latin.

By looking at Shakespeare, who usually uses an only before silent 'h', you can discover that there were a few words where the 'h' was silent back them but isn't now, like humble, host and, in the U.K., herb. And Shakespeare has:

If thou wilt, go with me to the alehouse; if not, thou art an Hebrew, a Jew, and not worth the name of a Christian.

Even though he usually uses 'a' before horse and house:

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

For Venus smiles not in a house of tears.

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  • Is there a reason why the King James edition translators would use 'an' before 'h' whether or not the 'h' was silent. And Shakespeare for that matter? – jamie1989 Sep 3 '16 at 11:40
  • @jamie1989 - The translators of the KJV made a conscious choice to use "archaic" language, presumably to give the translation more of a sense of "authority". – Hot Licks Sep 3 '16 at 11:48
  • Originally, Middle English put an before all words. The 'n' was dropped before consonants fairly early, but I believe an before 'h' lasted longer than an before other consonants. Shakespeare occasionally has an before non-silent 'h's, so I suspect the use of an before non-silent 'h' hadn't completely died out by then. Maybe the translators of the KJV thought it was more correct. – Peter Shor Sep 3 '16 at 11:56

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