Nunnation is a thing in English
Are there two Articles in English, or just one? There's the definite article, "the." It changes pronunciation depending on whether a vowel or a consonant follows it (it's pronounced thuh
before consonants, but thee
before vowels, hence thuh chicken,
but thee egg
-- although for emphasis, we say thee chicken
when we mean one particular bird we're calling attention to). Still, that's only a small change in vowel sound, and we do that all the time without saying we're making a different word.
But is there only one indefinite article -- or are there two? We say "a" (usually pronounced uh,
but for emphasis becomes eh
) before a word beginning with a consonant, but "an" before a word beginning with a vowel. So: a chicken; an egg.
That extra n
thrown in there to separate vowel sounds is a process called "nunnation." It's very common in English.
For instance, we often add an N
to a name beginning with a vowel to make it a diminutive. So: Ned
or Edgar; Nell
for for Eleanor
and Anne. Noakes
looks like a similar kind of name, but in fact, it's a contraction, not a diminutive. In Middle English, the phrase atten Oakes
meant "at the oaks." So "Robert [who lived] at the oaks" became Robin Noakes. But the process by which atten oakes
could become at 'n'oakes,
and then just 'n'Oakes,
where the n
detached from the end of one word and attached itself to the front of the next, is pure nunnation.
We see this transfer of n
in words like "apron," "adder," and "auger." These words started out as napron, nædere,
from Old French, Old English, and Old French, respectively. So they used the indefinite article, "a." But over time, the n
detached from the noun in each case and attached to the article. a napron
became "an apron," a nadder
became "an adder," and a nauger
became "an auger."
If you want to see how the n
moves between words, try saying the following sentence three times, very fast: A noisy noise annoys a noisy oyster.
So, why doesn't the n
show up between the vowel in "the" and a following vowel? Probably because the th
sound is very strong, whereas the bare, usually unaccented "a" tends to get swallowed up in the next word. If English used more glottal stops, like German, we might not need nunnation, but since we tend to run words together in our speech, the n
helps separate words -- but with the tendency to lose contact with its original word and drift to the one next to it.