Naprons and Apkins: How the Indefinite Article Shapes the English Language
I am nothing if not a geek. I recently spent an hour (or three) reading up on the indefinite article in English after a brief conversation with the team about why anyone would write “an history”. We all remembered from grade school that we write “a” before words that start with consonant sounds and “an” before words that begin with vowel sounds. This serves a purpose: it makes words easier to pronounce quickly and distinctly, and helps us avoid what’s called a glottal stop, when the tongue must make contact with the throat to create a momentary silent pause between vowel sounds (try saying “a apple”, then “an apple”: you should feel the difference). But the explanations got a little fuzzier when it came to words like “history” and “unicorn”–“history” starts with an “h”, so it should be “a history”, but we’d all read “an history” before, and “unicorn” starts with “u”, but “an unicorn” sounds bizarre. Linguistics is a pet subject of mine, so I started babbling before I could stop myself that “an history” was probably a hold-over from the English language’s origins, when the “h” might not always have been pronounced and would have left the word with a beginning vowel sound (“an ‘istory”). And “unicorn” doesn’t begin with a true vowel sound, but with a “y” sound (“yoo-nicorn”), so it doesn’t require the extra consonant sound. Though the conversation (and my subsequent embarrassment at knowing weird trivia) lasted a few minutes at most, my curiosity was piqued. When did this little particle get so complicated?
Etymology Can Be Fun (I Promise)
As it turns out, it was a long time ago. “An” is actually the older of the two forms of our indefinite article. It comes from the German “ein”, meaning one, and was originally used for just about everything, from “university” to “clock”. But some words, especially words that were borrowed from foreign languages, were cumbersome and difficult to pronounce or simply ran together with the indefinite article. For example, that smock you wear to protect your clothes when you bake, an apron? Around 1300 that used to be called “a napron”, from the French “naperon”, meaning a little tablecloth. After a few hundred years of saying “an napron”, English speakers started to hear “an apron” instead.
Why Hamburgers Aren’t Made of Ham
This is due to a linguistic trend called “rebracketing”, whereby a word is broken down into different chunks, changing (or obscuring) the original meaning. A classic example of rebracketing is the word “hamburger”: originally this was tasty treat was broken down as (Hamburg)+(er), indicating that it was popular in Hamburg, a town in Germany. When the word was imported into English, it was rebracketed as (ham)+(burger), leading to the conundrum of having chicken burgers, turkey burgers, and hamburgers (which contain no ham, and never have).
How I Learned to Love Juncture Loss
But back to “a” and “an”. The specific type of rebracketing going on with these words is called “juncture loss”, which can happen in one of two ways. Like “apron”, it could be when the “n” from the beginning of a word gets attached to the indefinite article (“an apron” instead of “a napron”), but it could also go the other way, as was the case when “an apkin” eventually became “a napkin”.
At first, I found this information to be a little frustrating. So this whole indefinite article mess stemmed from a long history of mistakes? But as I kept looking up different examples of juncture loss and restructuring (and there are many), I started to appreciate these little switches a little more. Sure, juncture loss had obscured the etymology of “nickname” (what the heck is a “nick”?), which used to be “an eke-name”, or a name that was “eke”, the Middle English word for “a little extra”. (We still retain that meaning in the phrase “to eke out”, to get just a little bit of something.) But juncture loss is also helped English speakers use words from languages they didn’t understand, over and over, until they felt familiar and became a part of the English language in their own right. English speakers today wouldn’t recognize the Old French word “nonper”, which means “odd” or “not even”, and refers to an extra person on the field during sports. But a few centuries later, thanks to juncture loss, we all understand what role “an umpire” fills.
Juncture loss isn’t a real loss at all. Sure, English speakers may eventually lose track of where the words they use every day come from, making it harder for historians and language-lovers to trace their roots. (It’s astounding, for instance, how many common modern English words can be traced back to Chaucer.) But it’s also a natural trend, and maybe an inevitable one, in living languages: to take helpful words from foreign tongues whose meanings are useful and to massage them until they are easy and pleasant to say. Juncture loss allows ideas from across the globe to be expressed in one’s own language and to become so familiar that their original form seems the more foreign. Call me a geek (you’ll get no argument from me), but I think that’s pretty awesome.