Dear 100 Hour Board,
One of my favorite things about language is learning the name of grammatical constructions (example: adding emphasis to a word by interrupting it with another word is called an infix. Abso-friggin-lutely). Something I can't find out, however, is if adding an "n" to the indefinite article "a" when preceding a vowel (a table vs. an apple) has a special name. Help?
BONUS QUESTION: What's your favorite grammatical construction?
I did quite a bit of Wikipedia digging about this, and haven't been able to find a solid definition for this. I am going to take this opportunity to share all of the cool things I did come across, though.
First, I can share what I did find for that grammatical construction. You can find this information here, on the Wikipedia page for English articles, under "Indefinite article", and "Distinction between a and an". This difference actually appears a bit, especially with articles. Some examples include thy/thine, the pronounces "thuh" or "thee", and in Spanish having "el" as the article for some feminine words that start with "a" as in "el agua". I would say that this is a sonorous shift. Sonority refers to how a language sounds, especially making it nice on the ears. Some cool Wikipedia pages I found on sonority were the sonority sequencing principle, which defines which sequences of letters are allowed in a language and which sequences of sounds are normal; and sonority hierarchy, which tries to compare the sonority of different sounds. What I especially think is cool is the "ecological patterns in sonority" section, which talks about how different climates can change the types of sounds used in languages. That's so cool!
Rebracketeering is where the building blocks of words come to have different meanings over time, like how the "holic" in "alcoholic" can be added to the end of words now and has become its own morpheme in words like "chocoholic" and "workaholic". It can also be used in the combination of separate words over time, such as "a napron" becoming "an apron".
Dummy pronouns appear in sentences such as "It is cold outside." or "It is weird that...". They are words like "it" that are added to sentences to give the sentence a subject in a subjectless sentence where the language requires a subject. In other languages that don't need explicit subjects, you can say things like "Hace llueve." (Spanish) or "Umuulan." (Tagalog). So, when you say, "It is raining." and someone says, "What is raining.", you can say, "The dummy pronoun, of course!".
Malaphors are the combination of two metaphors or cliches, and are also cool. I learned about them before, though, in this tumblr post. They might be my favorite grammatical thing, but after this, I'm not super sure.
Metathesis is the reordering of letters and sounds in a word to make it more sonorous, like "foliage"→"foilage" or "cavalry"→"calvary". The part I thought was especially cool was in ASL, where there are some words with two signs (such as restaurant) in which you can do either first, and it will be the same word, sometimes with slightly different contexts. You can see that in the difference between this website and this one.
Some other cool related grammatical constructs are eggcorns and mondegreens. Eggcorns are phrases where which people switch out words with similar sounds such as "Alzheimer's disease" becoming "Old timer's disease". My favorite eggcorns are calling chicken cordon bleu "chicken corndog blue" and anaphylactic shock "intergalactic shock". Mondegreens are similar, but usually just misheard lyrics (we have a Board question about this!), which sometimes become standard like in "The Twelve Days of Christmas", where "four colly birds" becomame "four calling birds".
Phonatactics is the study of permissible phonemes and letter combinations, and explains why we can have words like "crow", but not "rcow".
Prosody is a change in pitch over a phrase or sentence rather than just in a words and reflects things like sarcasm or tone. One interesting bit is in the section "Child language" which is the switched tone we use for little kids (or animals). It is sometimes called "motherese" and although is thought to be helpful for little kids and is shown across different languages, no evidence for its usefulness has been shown.
I'll end with what has probably become my favorite grammatical construct, which are loanwords, words borrowed from other languages that are sometimes changed to reflect our phonetics. It think these are so cool. Loanwords are the reason that more than one goose is geese, but more than one moose is moose, because we actually took the word moose from a Native American language that doesn't have a plural ending (probably just a plural marker, like the word "mga" in Tagalog)! Also, the expression "Chop chop" comes from the Mandarin "Chuk Chuk", meaning "hurry up"? What??? "Long time no see" is an expression that comes from the literal translation of a Chinese expression! Same as "No can do"! "Wiki" means fast in Hawaiian! That is so cool! This page has the English loanwords from every language, and if you ask a question about it, I will share all my favorite loanwords.
The superset of loanwords is called folk etymology, which I think is pretty cool, and also includes things like inkhorn terms, which are words (usually loanwords) that are deemed overly pretentious. The page on inhorn terms has this great George Owell quote:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.
Language games/argots such as Pig Latin are also pretty cool.
I don't think there is a word for the specific a/an situation. Usage dictionaries normally just list it under a or an.
However, there is a term for when a sound is added to a word (in a way that doesn't change the meaning of the word). Actually there are several terms. The overarching one is epenthesis. I've also seen it referred to as intrusion (like with the intrusive R) or segment addition (if Greek-derived words like epenthesis scare you). Here are some types of epenthesis that might interest you.
- Paragoge: epenthesis at the end of a word
- Prothesis: epenthesis at the beginning of a word
- Excrescence: epenthesis of a consonant
- Anaptyxis: epenthesis of a vowel
So if we are looking at things synchronically (meaning that we aren't taking history into account; we are just looking at the language as it is right now), then the a > an thing can be considered an example of epenthesis, and paragoge, and excrescence. But if we are looking at things diachronically (meaning we are taking history into account), then we must remember that both a and an are derived from the Old English ān (same as the word one), so really it's the word a that is losing a sound, not an that is gaining one.
If this is at all interesting to you, I hope you find the Related Phenomena and See Also sections of the epenthesis Wikipedia page. And if that's not enough for you, here's the Wikipedia page for sound change, which has lots more fun stuff. Or if you're a BYU student, just take ELANG 223 because basically that whole class was just learning words like this.