An interesting linguistic quirk

Hello loyal readers.

I just noticed something funny that I’d like to share with you all.

Traditionally the indefinite article “a” is used before nouns beginning with a consonant, whereas the indefinite article “an” is used before a noun beginning with a vowel. Like any rules there are exceptions – for example you have a university not an university.

It occured to me while writing this morning that you have an “f” not a “f”, or an “x” not a “x”. It would seem the usage rule boils down to the sound at the start of the word… phonetically speaking (or spelling) university would be yoo-nee-ver-city, which is a consonant sound – although y can also operate as a vowel. And the letters “x” (ex) and “f” (eff) actually start with vowel sounds even though they’re consonants. R (arr), L (ell), and S (ess) obey the same rule. This rule should also solve once and for all the aitch v haitch “H” debate. Because you have an “h” not a “h” it must be aitch. So there.

Isn’t language fun.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

8 thoughts on “An interesting linguistic quirk”

  1. i believe “em” also obey this rule “en”. interestingly a lot of letter when spelled out phonetically contaion doubles letters in the. e.g. bee, see, dee, eff, gee, ell, pee, arr, ess, tee, vee….

  2. Phonetically, “university” has a semi-vowel (the [j] glide) at the start so it would be phoneticised as:
    [jynƏ’vœsƏti:] using an australian accent that is (the [y] represents the sound used for a german “ü”, and the schwa [Ə] is the neutral “uh” kind of sound that we often lazily say. The semi-vowels are [w] as in “we” [j] as in “young” and [ɥ] which is sort of like “tune” would be if you said it like a toff.
    The letters “f” x” “r” “l” all have glottal attacks, which the semi-vowels don’t – try saying “university” with a glottal and you sound like your coughing up a fur ball. so “f” would be phoneticised as [ˌɛf] or “x” as [ˌɛks] “h” with the glottal would be [ˌɛitʃ].
    So from that, it seems that words which start with glottal attacks use “an” but words starting with consonants or semi-vowels (or semi-consonant if you like) use “a”

  3. “interestingly a lot of letter when spelled out phonetically contaion doubles letters in the. e.g. bee, see, dee, eff, gee, ell, pee, arr, ess, tee, vee….”
    actually, they don’t:

    [bi si di ɛf dƷi ɛl pi a ɛs ti vi]

  4. How do you know it’s “an aitch” and not “a haitch”? Maybe that’s wrong ;)

    From what I’ve heard from teachers, and SPEECH teachers, it’s “haitch” not “aitch” ;P… I think. I can check that for you.

  5. I’ve always understood the correct (proper) english as [ˌɛitʃ] ( although some wiki people phonetised it as [ˌaItʃ] which is better I think.) They also say that in some dialects it has the breathy [ˌhaItʃ]. But it’s wiki which is as authoritive as Nathan’s blog, so why would we trust it? :P

    But really, try saying it the breathy way with a proper english accent – it sounds stupid, which means it must be silent :P

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