Few people would disagree that the spread of the coronavirus is historic, having “great and lasting importance.” (We hope that it will soon be historical, “concerning past events,” too.) English speakers do disagree, though – sometimes vehemently – about how to use these two words with the indefinite articles a/an. Is it “a historic event” or “an historic event”? And what’s behind the argument?
The difficulty dates back to the Norman Conquest of England, in 1066. Before William the Conqueror invaded, Old English was chock-full of guttural h’s, as in the first word of the poem “Beowulf”: “Hwaet!” (What!) The language of the conquerors, Norman French, was full of h’s, too, but only when written down. Since it was descended from Latin, it often spelled words such as honour, humor, and herb with “h” as Latin had, even while it dropped the sound in pronunciation. The French word for “modest or lowly,” for example, was often written humble but pronounced “umble.”
English adopted these words and continued to spell and say them the same way for hundreds of years. In the late 19th century, Baron Aldenham, director of the Bank of England, complained when the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary dismissed his pronunciation of humour – “yumour” – as “obsolete.” Meanwhile, some dialects of English had dropped nearly all their h’s, not just those in words derived from French. Such “h”-dropping came to be seen as terribly low class and ill-bred; think of Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”
The Victorian middle classes adopted “h” as a way to differentiate themselves from the Elizas of the world, pronouncing the letter when it began a word. Victorians got so “h” happy, though, that they started to hypercorrect, enunciating “h” wherever they found it, even in some of the French-derived words – hospital and hotel, for example.
Though the pronunciation and social significance of “h” changed radically in the 19th century, our familiar rules for indefinite articles still applied. If you aspirated “h” in hotel, it was “a hotel,” because we use “a” before consonant sounds. If you dropped the “h” and said “otel,” you used “an,” since in that case the word begins with a vowel sound.
Not all French-derived words made the jump at the same time, however. Many English people said “an otel” right into the 1940s, and Americans still say “an erb” when talking about herbs.
Multisyllabic French-derived words like habitual, historical, and historic are laggards in this transition to the enunciated “h.” They are stressed on the second syllable, so that “an historic” rolls off the tongue more easily than “a historic.” A third of English speakers thus still write “an” with these words.