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In The King James Bible, Genesis:

2:20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

I have also found a book from 1729 by Edward Wells called An help for the right understanding of the several divine laws and covenants, whereby man has been oblig'd thro' the several ages of the world to guide himself in order to eternal salvation.

Does this mean that 'help' was pronounced starting with a vowel sound? Or was the rule for using the article an different back then?

I understand that hour, honor or heir have a silent 'h', coming from Latin and Greek. However, according to the American Heritage Dictionary:

help (hĕlp)

[...]

[Middle English helpen, from Old English helpan.]

Maybe there were several pronunciations? How did Shakespeare pronounce it in his works?

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    The 'rule' doesn't apply strictly even today (this has been covered here before). It's not considered incorrect to use 'an' before (lightly, by those doing this) aspirated words such as historic(/al etc), hotel, and a few others. Though I don't. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 at 10:43
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    @EdwinAshworth The rules before "h" are a little tricky, but clear: if a word begins with an "h" sound and the first syllable is stressed (like "house"), then it never takes "an". If the first syllable is not stressed (like "historical") then it is possible to use "an". from here. I can't see that with 'help'. Are there English accents in which people say 'an help'? – Alberto Aug 20 at 10:52
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    That answer is, sadly, defective. <<The rules before "h" are a little tricky, but clear >> // << If the first syllable is not stressed (like "historical") then it is possible to use "an". Some usage authorities would say you must use "an" in those cases .... You find both "a" and "an" used before words like "historical". >> [emphasis mine]. Please take extreme care when quoting selectively. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 at 11:01
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    @EdwinAshworth I didn't quote the rest because I didn't think it was relevant, it just restricts the usage even more. What I wanted to point out with that is that help is not like historical, it is only one syllable. It is not one of those cases. – Alberto Aug 20 at 11:09
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    But the statement (which you repeat as though it's uncontestable) 'The rules before "h" are a little tricky, but clear' is proved wrong by what follows (what follows, I believe, being certainly correct). How can they be clear if people disagree on what they are? // Remember you responded to my "The 'rule' [whichever anyone states as being the correct prescription] doesn't apply strictly even today". I used scare quotes to show that OP's 'the rule' needs defining. (And then being seen as at best 'a guideline'.) – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 at 13:27
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In early Middle English, people used an before all words, whether they started with a consonant or vowel. They started dropping the /n/ before consonants, but the /n/ was retained before /h/ longer than it was retained before other consonants.

Shakespeare seems to use "a" before almost all one-syllable words starting with "h" except ones where the "h" wasn't pronounced, like hour, heir, herb, host. (A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!). However, the King James Bible, written around the same time, doesn't seem entirely consistent in their treatments of "a/an" before /h/. There are 70 instances of "an house", and 5 of "a house", in it (and 6 instances of "an horse", and none of "a horse"). Keeping the "n" was presumably thought to be the more formal way of writing things, probably because it was older.

I think it's very possible that by 1729, nobody said "an help" anymore, and that Edward Wells wrote "an help" solely because the King James Bible did.

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    The inconsistency of article in the KJV is perhaps due to the many translators (I think 47) involved in it, each supplying their own idiosyncrasies. – Nigel J Aug 20 at 12:32
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    AV = "Authorized Version", the same meaning as KJV, and what it is often called in Britain. – Michaelyus Aug 20 at 13:00
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    "people used an before all words": before all words beginning with an h? – Literalman Aug 20 at 13:28
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    @Literalman: before all words. The OED has, from 1200, Inn till an wilde wesste. Old English didn't have an indefinite article. Middle English started using an, which meant one in Old English, for the indefinite article. The OED remarks: "Loss of the final consonant -n from the 12th cent. onwards took place chiefly, but not exclusively, before a following word with initial consonant." – Peter Shor Aug 20 at 17:22
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    @Chris H: a silent h in herb is still standard in America (although some Americans pronounce it, possibly because of pernicious British influence). The silent h in host started being pronounced sometime after the 17th century, both in America and Britain. But some pretentious people still say mine host, which is a remnant of the silent "h" (mine used to be used before vowels and my before consonants). – Peter Shor Aug 20 at 17:41

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