An European vs. A European

March 24, 2014

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?