In The King James Bible, Genesis:
2:20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
I have also found a book from 1729 by Edward Wells called An help for the right understanding of the several divine laws and covenants, whereby man has been oblig’d thro’ the several ages of the world to guide himself in order to eternal salvation.
Does this mean that ‘help’ was pronounced starting with a vowel sound? Or was the rule for using the article an different back then?
I understand that hour, honor or heir have a silent ‘h’, coming from Latin and Greek. However, according to the American Heritage Dictionary:
[Middle English helpen, from Old English helpan.]
Maybe there were several pronunciations? How did Shakespeare pronounce it in his works?
In early Middle English, people used an before all words, whether they started with a consonant or vowel. They started dropping the /n/ before consonants, but the /n/ was retained before /h/ longer than it was retained before other consonants.
Shakespeare seems to use “a” before almost all one-syllable words starting with “h” except ones where the “h” wasn’t pronounced, like hour, heir, herb, host. (A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!). However, the King James Bible, written around the same time, doesn’t seem entirely consistent in their treatments of “a/an” before /h/. There are 70 instances of “an house”, and 5 of “a house”, in it (and 6 instances of “an horse”, and none of “a horse”). Keeping the “n” was presumably thought to be the more formal way of writing things, probably because it was older.
I think it’s very possible that by 1729, nobody said “an help” anymore, and that Edward Wells wrote “an help” solely because the King James Bible did.