"An historic," rationale?

Minor grammar question, why is it “an historic” and not “a historic”? As in “an historic night” or “an historic election.” At first I thought it was tongue in cheek, but people seem to be using it seriously. Historic doesn’t start with a vowel sound… does it? I’m guessing the answer is just “random idiom, deal with it.” But I was wondering if there was a rationale behind the construction.

I was always told that it was due to the pronunciation of “h”.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H confirms that “h” is spelled “aitch”.

It depends whether or not the accent is on the first syllable. So it’s “an historic,” but “a history.”

It is if you’re english.
It’s an 'istoric election, luv.

It’s a haffectation.

It’s not the standard way of saying and writing it. “A historic” is the standard way. The standard rule is that if a word starts with a consonant sound (note, a consonant sound, not a consonant) then it takes “a” and not “an.” Apparently though in some nonstandard dialects words with an initial “h” sound take “an” and not “a.” I haven’t done a survey so I don’t know how common those dialects are.

The word history comes from the greek word ιστορία. In ancient greek the first letter of that word was accented with a diacritic called spiritus asper which adds an H like sound.

In modern greek diacritics are not used anymore, so the modern greek word for history sounds like the english word “History” but without the h.

I agree. I think it’s incredibly stupid when I hear American speakers who pronounce the “h” sound in “historic” inexplicably use the article “an” in front of it.

I don’t think this holds water, either. I’ve never heard “an” in front of words like “heroic” or “heterogeneous” and they don’t have the accent on the first syllable.
I think it rose as an affectation adapted from British speakers who dropped the “h” sound from the word, causing the word to start with a vowel, and thus using “an” for the article instead of “a.” American speakers picked up on the article while retaining the “h” sound in the word, which makes no sense.

Bill Walsh from the Washington Post copy edit desk and I agree. SHARP POINTS: An Ysterical Rant?

From “The Elephants of Style”:

It’s simply because some words with a silent initial h reverted to sounding it. There seems to be no rhyme or reason which words reverted and which kept the unsounded h. The an before those which reverted is a kind of fossil memory.

Honour, honest, herb, etc on the one side and hotel, hospital, etc (those two and others being unsounded in Received Pronunciation in the UK within my memory - 1950s).

Some people don’t pronounce the ‘H’. I know plenty of people who say 'istoric, 'umanity, 'eroic, etc. I thought it was a regional dialect somewhere in the US, because the people I know who talk like that didn’t grow up around here.

Anyway, I always assumed that the people who wrote that way talked that way too.

“An historic” is an affectation. Sometimes it’s a kind of hypercorrection. Anyway, it’s wrong unless in your dialect the H is silent, as in honest.

This is what I attribute it to. Like people who won’t say “Jack brought Jill and me two pails of water” but insist on saying “Jack brought Jill and I two pails of water.”

I can’t find a cite, but thought that either “a” or “an” could always be used before a non-silent “h” (“an” is always used before a silent “h”).

I remember an episode of MAS*H where Hawkeye was mocking Winchester and used the phrase “an human” to make fun of his affected speech patterns.

Spiritus Asper would be a great name for a villain. Or for a Bond girl even.

[nitpick]This is not a question of grammar. It’s a question of phonology.[/nitpick]

Unless people also write it that way; choosing which article to use is a question of grammar then.

And, we likely should get rid of the whole “a/an” thing anyway. It’s a little silly, and words with “h” make it incredibly silly.

How is it silly?

“An Historic” sounds more right to me, and I’ve never thought of it as an affectation. I always assumed the reason for it was to avoid confusion with the word “ahistoric”.

Firefox’s dictionary does not recognize the word “ahistoric”. Merriam-Webster does though, so I can’t be imagining this.

In writing I would still use “a historic”. Speaking I would use “an historic”. As long as it’s not over-emphasized you won’t come off sounding like a tool.

No. "
*So, a is used in writing, with nouns or noun phrases that begin with a consonant sound, including before u when it is pronounced /y/ or o iws pronounced /w/, for example, a unique opportunity and a one and a two. An is used in writing when it precedes a word that begins with a vowel sound, for example, an onion, an honorable man. In the past, all words with h took an, but that was due to initial h not being pronounced at that time. Today, in general, except for words in which not pronouncing the initial h is standard, a is used, except in formal writing and with the word historical, which has a larger percentage of an’s. In speech, a before an initial vowel sound is found more often in some dialects. *