An European vs. A European

E. P. Thompson’s magisterial History of the English Working Class (1963) contains a short, innocuous phrase that nonetheless pulled me up short: “The population ‘explosion’ can be seen as an European phenomenon”. Then later, the same formulation: “the materials for an European and a British frame of reference”.

I don’t remember ever hearing a native English speaker – which Thompson is – say an European, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It may be a generational thing, among other factors.

The OED includes several standard pronunciations, all starting with [j] – the “y” sound of you, aka the voiced palatal approximant – which would ordinarily be preceded by “a”, not “an”. But English inherited the word from French Européen (from Latin, from Greek), which begins with a vowel sound, not a [j].

This may explain the gradual switch in both UK and US English, if not the timing (click to enlarge):

google ngram viewer - a european vs an european us and uk english

Or maybe someone better informed on these matters will edify us in the comments.

The inexorable decline of an European is confirmed by a search in COHA, whose most recent example is decades old (“convening of an European constitutional convention”, Christian Science Monitor, 1952). A comparison with GloWbE, however, shows it’s not unheard of in unedited (or unprofessionally edited) writing around the world:

an european in coha vs. glowbe corpus comparison

A search on Twitter shows likewise, though a brief examination of the results suggests it’s mainly non-native English speakers who use it.

Have you seen or heard, or do you say, an European? What do you make of such an usage?

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29 Responses to An European vs. A European

  1. John Cowan says:

    At a guess, people wrote an European not because European began with a vowel, but because it was written with an initial vowel letter, and they were hypercorrecting.

  2. Mrs Fever says:

    With the ‘eu’ imitating :y: it seems odd to have “an” ahead of European. It’s not done with other :y: sounds. We don’t say “an yak” after all.

    An Yak.

    Sounds like a rockabilly punk band. ;)

  3. Linda says:

    In Europe, we would have flunked every English language exam for not knowing a vowel from a semi-vowel.

  4. dw says:

    Most words now pronounced “yoo” (IPA /ju:/) were earlier pronounced as a rising diphthong “ee-oo” (IPA /iu/). If the first syllable of “European” was pronounced (/iu/), then it would be natural to say “An European” rather than “A European”.

    I don’t remember exactly when the shift from /iu/ to /ju:/ happened, but I’m pretty sure it took place after 1600, which was when the word “European” seems to have been first used.

    It might be interesting to compare other words beginning with the same sound: “A union” vs. “An union”. “A unique” versus “An unique”, etc.

  5. igoulton says:

    A European, definitely. But then I say “a herb” (with a hard “h”), not “an erb” like I hear on some American TV programmes.

    I think I remember reading that the English upper classes used to drop their ‘h’s (and possibly other letters) at the beginnings of words, a habit which would have spread to the US through immigration. But when the lower classes started dropping their ‘h’s to imitate, the English upper classes started pronouncing them (but the US ones didn’t).

  6. Stan says:

    John: I wonder. Quick checks of a/an eulogy and eunuch show similar curves, though their crossovers occur a little later, around 1850.

    Mrs Fever: It seemed odd to me too, but it’s more common than I’d have guessed. “An Yak” as a band name reminded me of Yat-Kha, the Tuvan trad/rock band!

    Linda: And yet modern native English speakers adopted this style. It’s a curious one.

    dw: Thank you; I didn’t know that, and it’s very helpful. Union, usual, useless and unicorn all show the same switch, from mostly “an” to mostly “a”, in the first half of the 19thC. These are rough results based on Ngram queries, but they suggest a broad trend.

    igoulton: Funnily enough, “an erb” was the original pronunciation; British speakers later added the h sound. I wrote about aitch and haitch recently, if you’re interested. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Harry Lake says:

    Hallo there again Stan, and apologies for forgetting the drill and sending you an email instead of logging in! And apologies to all if this is too long!

    As it happens, a month and a day ago I stumbled across this very wording in a programme broadcast on Dutch TV, one of a series entitled Na De Bevrijding (After the Liberation). It struck me straight away, and I ‘rewound’ the recording to hear it again. There was no doubt about it, especially as he said it twice (though only once in the filmclip, I now find). I then went online and found several reports of the speech in a number of US newspaper archives based, I assume, on scans. The newspapers may have been American, but the speaker was arguably the most famous Englishman ever: Winston Churchill. He was speaking in Amsterdam on 10 May 1948 (the eighth anniversary of the German invasion in 1940).

    Here’s the text, slightly tidied up to remove scan errors:

    Addressing 30,000 persons in Amsterdam’s square, Churchill said: “We are trying to take a step forward, in harmony with our different governments, to revive the old glory of Europe.” He declared a united Europe must be safe from foreign aggression or inroads and added: “It must be a Europe in which men will be proud to say ‘I am an European.’ Where men of every country will think as much of being an European as of being a citizen of their own country” This he described as “the transformation of the western world.’’ Britain’s wartime prime minister and leaders from other countries have been participating in an unofficial ’ Congress of Europe” at The Hague to promote the idea of a democratic federation of European nations.

    (Why ‘an European’ but not ‘an Europe’, I wonder.)

    To anyone searching for the text online: many versions have changed ‘an’ to ‘a’, e.g. the Daily Mail as found here:

    I imagine it will be possible with some effort to find a copy of the recording. The Dutch TV archives certainly have it:
    very shortly before the end, at just after 47:40, a very short clip.

    I hope to return to the subject of a/an later.

    Cheers,

    Harry Lake

  8. Harry Lake says:

    I now see the links I posted have been stripped out. I hope this is because of the angle brackets I put round them, and not because links are prohibited here…

    Here they are:
    after the US newspaper quote:

    http://newspaperarchive.com/abilene-reporter-news/1948-05-10/page-16

    after the UK newspaper quote:

    http://www.cvce.eu/content/publication/2008/2/27/7443907c-f5e1-4b19-960b-5f9d1be8b2fb/publishable_en.pdf

    and the link to the programme containing the filmclip (go to 47:40):

    http://www.uitzendinggemist.nl/afleveringen/1398899

    Cheers,
    Harry

  9. Now you’ve got me thinking about a neuro-pean. Thanks, Stan.

  10. June says:

    ‘An European’ hurts my ears….

  11. seajay23 says:

    Was EP Thompson a historian or an historian?

  12. Stan says:

    Harry: Hello, and no apologies necessary. That’s a very interesting example, and like you I immediately wondered why an European but not an Europe. Churchill’s European seems to me to start with a [j], but I’m no expert and may be mishearing it. Perhaps a reader can offer an explanation (or a spectrogram).
    Yes, the links disappeared because of the angle brackets, which this comments box interprets as HTML code. Also: comments with more than one link are caught by the spam filter, but I check these for valid comments when I can, so I found your second one there.

    Nancy: That could be its ekename – I mean, nickname.

    June: A possible solution: keep saying it to yourself until it doesn’t hurt any more.

    seajay23: Legitimately both, but for me a historian.

  13. Linus Band says:

    Very interesting! I guess I can imagine the Welsh using ‘an European’, since (at least here) they tend to pronounce [ju:] more like [ɪw]. I’ll try to get some data from people here ([hjœ] :P )

  14. bevrowe says:

    Not to mention ‘a(n) union’

  15. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:

    Here, “eu-”‘s not a vowel;
    I must make that avowel.
    “An “eu-” takes “a”, not “an,”
    And always, not now and then.
    If further search proves me wrong,
    I’ll be glad to go along.

  16. Stan says:

    Linus: Thanks! Even a casual survey would be interesting to hear about.

    Bev: Indeed. As it happens I mentioned union earlier: it shows the same ‘switch’ around the same time, as do other eu- and u- words.

    Marc:
    Both are seen,
    as well as heard –
    The choice between
    Is somewhat blurred.

    Mark Liberman, via email, suggests two possibilities:

    (1) In earlier times, the pronunciation of words ineu- was modeled after classical Greek ευ-, i.e. phonetically /[eu̯]/. Since this diphthong doesn’t normally exist in English, it changed to modern /ju/ (or whatever), as familiarity with Greek decreased among the literate classes, and as words in eu- became more commonplace. The choice of a/an followed.

    (2) In earlier times, an orthographic convention trumped the phonological regularity, and “an” was used before words starting with an orthographic vowel, however they were pronounced.

    Story (1) seems more likely to me — but to explain the long historical tale of “an European” etc., including Churchill, we’d need to assume that some people retained lexical exceptions to the normal allomorphy, based on the earlier pattern.

  17. Linus Band says:

    I’ve asked and it is indeed ‘an European’ here in Wales (Llanelli at least), which makes sense since they pronounce Eu- as vowel plus glide [ɪw] instead of glide plus vowel [ju].
    When asked a second time, however, you notice the classic switch to careful speech and thus ‘a European’ with [ju].
    So: yes, ‘an European’ does occur in the speech of native English speakers. You have to find the right native speakers though and preferable catch them off guard :P

  18. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Stan: the tradeoff between forms is perhaps easier to see using relative frequencies. A/an Europe has a pretty complicated history.

  19. Stan says:

    Linus: Excellent – thanks for reporting back. The sociolinguistic note is interesting too!

    Alon: It is, thank you. The pattern definitely warrants a closer look than I’m able to give it at the moment.

  20. John Cowan says:

    Stan, I’m reasonably certain the contrast an European/a Europe reflects the shift of stress. The well-known use of an historic(al) has never been accompanied by *an hall, *an happiness. I think, but I am not sure, that even people who don’t pronounce initial /h/ at all say a ‘all rather than an ‘all, showing that like French h aspiré, the /h/ is “still there” in some sense.

    • Dw says:

      @John Cowan:

      If the change from “an European” to “a European” were motivated by stress change, then why would similar changes be observed in words like “union”?

      • John Cowan says:

        Oh, I’m sure the /iw/ > /ju/ change is what’s doing the work, it’s just that there’s an intermediate stage where stressed eu takes a but unstressed eu takes an.

  21. bevrowe says:

    I always assumed that “an historical” and “an hotel” were just showing of the knowledge that these words were derived from French

  22. John Cowan says:

    I was just listening to the first two episodes of Simon Schama’s series The Story of the Jews, and I note him saying an ‘istorical repeatedly, though he is not an /h/-dropper generally.

  23. noname says:

    Its interesting to look at the official European law documents at

    https://www.linguee.de/deutsch-englisch/search?source=auto&query=an+european

    It’s full of “an European”. It seems that even the professional translators prefer to write “an European” instead of “a European”.

    • Harry Lake says:

      I can assure you that the work put out by the ‘professional’ translators working for the EU is full of errors of this kind. Many of them, it seems, have to work into languages that are not their own.

  24. June says:

    It starts with a ‘y’ sound and we would never say ‘an year’. So I don’t understand why anyone would say ‘an European’.

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