Sunlit Water

May 14, 2007

I Can Sometimes Answer Questions

Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 12:22 am

Quoth Anna Genoese:

I have done a survey, and so far it looks like most people say “a University” instead of “an University” — and they chalk it up as a phonics. I wonder if Thomas Jefferson really said “an University”? I am thinking here about “An act for establishing the University” which says, “And be it enacted, that there shall be established, on the site provided for the said college an University to be called, ‘The University of Virginia’.” I am also wondering about the punctuation in that sentence.

(Earlier today I was wondering about the punctuation in the Declaration of Independence. Ever look at it? Very interesting.)

The punctuation in the Declaration has been noted before; I think the issue there, as in the other Jefferson passage, is mainly just that punctuation wasn’t standardized at the time, but I don’t know much about the orthography of eighteenth-century English.

I don’t know a whole lot about the phonology of eighteenth-century English either, but I do know some things.  One of the main changes going on at the time was the palatalization of [u], where a [y] was inserted before the vowel in an increasing number of contexts.  This is why we pronounce “music” as [myuzIk] and “cue” as [kyu].  (Note that this only affected words with etymological [u] and not words such as “mood” and “cool” where modern [u] comes from long [o:].)  One of the other contexts where this change occurred was in word-initial position, which is why we pronounce words like “university” as though they have an initial [y] and use “a” instead of “an” as the indefinite article with them (because that is the form used before words beginning with consonants, which these now are).  In Jefferson’s day, however, the change had apparently not yet spread that far, so he would have pronounced “university” as a vowel-initial word taking the indefinite article “an.”

One interesting thing about this change is that it went much further in British than in American English (probably because the American Revolution and the subsequent weakening of ties between America and Britain happened while it was going on), which is why British people pronounce “tune” and “new” as [tyun] and [nyu] while we say [tun] and [nu].

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2 Comments »

  1. So, Jefferson would have been talking about an Oonaversity? Funny.

    Comment by LizardBreath — May 14, 2007 @ 2:42 pm |Reply

  2. which is why British people pronounce “tune” and “new” as [tyun] and [nyu] while we say [tun] and [nu].

    holy crap, we do? /curses parents foisting british english on her once again

    Comment by Ile — June 10, 2007 @ 4:05 am |Reply


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