Hawkeye Pierce Requests “An Harmonica”

This long explanation is going to lead to a funny M*A*S*H TV moment, but first a word about indefinite article allomoprhy.

Indefinite Article Allomorphy

A tried and true U.S. English rule I follow is that the indefinite article a become an when the next word starts with a phonological vowel (regardless of spelling). See examples below (please pardon the slightly awkward Spanish examples below).

  • an hour /ən aw.ər/
  • an hombre /ən ombre/
  • an H /ən etʃ/ (U.S.)
  • a university /ə yunɨvərsɪti/
  • a ouija board /ə widʒi bɔrd/

The examples above show that you get an before silent “h” because the word is phonologically vowel-initial. You also get an before words that are spelled with an initial vowel, but really begin with /w,y/ or some other consonant. This indicates to me that this version of the rule is very conditioned by phonology.

Indefinite Article and /h/

I was also taught and do generally follow the generalization that indefinite articles preceding words beginning with /h/ surface as a.

  • a hormone /ə hɔrmon/
  • a hat /ə hæt/
  • a jalapeño /ə hæləpenjo/
  • a hibachi /ə hɨbatʃi/

But then there are words like historic where the an historic occasion has been considered acceptable. This has never sounded great to me, but the explanation I got in LING 100 was that /h/ words with stress somewhere besides the initial syllable may be preceded by an.

Modern Day Rise of “an h-“

However in listening to the news and media, I have noticed an increase in phrases like an historic occasion and in other words, particularly Greco-Latin words beginning with “h” such as hysterical, hormonal, horrific and hilarious. In fact a Google search reveals people asking questions about which form to use before these words.

There is some confusion out there. Note that there is potential confusion in Britain as well if a dialect is dropping initial /h/.

Interestingly, most sources agree that it’s an hibachi even though the stress is not on the first syllable. This may be a sign that the “an + h” rule may apply to Greco-Roman words.

There is an interesting exception to a hibachi in the headline “How to cook with an hibachi”)). Later the article notes “You can cook almost all the foods you cook on a regular barbecue on a hibachi.” This sounds like free variation (consistent with another forum poster claiming he or she couldn’t always choose) or that the writer REALLY says a hibachi but is trying to conform to the an historic rule in the headline.

Where does M*A*S*H come in?

What inspired this post was a M*A*S*H rerun where Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda speaking NYC flavored standard English) is on the phone pretending to be Boston Brahmin Charles Winchester III (played by David Ogden Stiers who does affect an uppercrust FDR like accent).

Hawkeye is trying to obtain a harmonica on the black market for a local child, but as Charles he demands an harmonica. It does appear that there was a familiarity with this rule, but that the writers associated it with “snooty” aristocrats. But that was in the early 80s.

The irony here is that since Hawkeye is supposed to be born and bred Maine, his accent could be just as New Englandy as Charles Winchester. This geographic fact was sadly was never played up in M*A*S*H.

Postscript (Aug 7): Doris Kearns Goodwin

On a PBS show (JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness) about how President Johnson was able to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made reference to it being an historic occasion, but it seemed like she was actually dropping the /h/ of historic (i.e. /əŋ ɪstɔrɨk/ or an ‘istoric). If that is this case, this would be the start of some sort of morpho-syntactic alternation where some /h/’s are dropped after the indefinite article. Very interesting.

5 thoughts on “Hawkeye Pierce Requests “An Harmonica”

  1. Kym

    I am currently watching that episode of MASH which led me here, so I find that pretty interesting if not funny!

    I’m such a geek, because linguistics fascinates me. Another prime example is the use of “eat your cake and have it to” that led to making a connection to the Unabomber. Who can’t say language is fun?! :)

  2. AndyNY2

    Another possible explanation for the difference between “an hibachi” in the headline and “a hibachi” in the body of the article:
    Newspaper headlines are often added by someone other than the writer of the article (a fact that can be maddening for reporters). Same is probably true for online articles such as this one. Could very well be the case that the author and headline writer simply disagree on this usage, and the headline writer didn’t read the article closely enough to notice.

  3. Wayne Moe

    Thank you for the thoughtful article.

    Ever since I saw that episode I have used that as a grammatical rule, always “an” before any “h.” I assumed rich guy, Harvard graduate Charles Winchester would have it correct. I was hoping you would be more in favor of it as I have been correcting people for many years now.

    1. Elizabeth Pyatt Post author

      It might be correct…for Charles Winchester. But since Alan Alda is speaking with what is now a standard accent, his joke reflects his attitude that he considers the usage pretentious and not part of his grammar.

Leave a Reply to AndyNY2 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *