Tuesday, 15 September 2009

in medias res

Consider these English words, all borrowed from Latin or from Greek via Latin. How is the final consonant pronounced?
-as: paterfamilias, Judas, atlas, Maecenas;
-es: tabes, faeces, Hades, bona fides, scabies, rabies, species, series, obsequies, isosceles, anopheles, herpes, lares et penates, Euripides, Sophocles, diabetes, Dives;
-is: cannabis, ibis, aegis, aphis, corydalis, chrysalis, annus mirabilis, syphilis, torticollis, acropolis, metropolis, epidermis, lenis, penis, Adonis, ex-libris, hubris, Berberis, iris, clitoris, basis, emphasis, psoriasis, oasis, stasis, exegesis, thesis, genesis, diaeresis, enuresis, crisis, thrombosis, silicosis, psychosis, osmosis, diagnosis, sclerosis, neurosis, halitosis, ellipsis, synopsis, catharsis, analysis, paralysis, appendicitis, bronchitis, mantis, glottis, axis, lexis;
-os: chaos, logos, pathos, ethos, thermos, cosmos, tripos, rhinoceros;
-us: syllabus, omnibus, incubus, abacus, diplodocus, focus, locus, discus, mucus, exodus, nucleus, Theseus, Zeus, sarcophagus, asparagus, fungus, typhus, polyanthus, ceanothus, radius, regius, genius, angelus, nautilus, phallus, gladiolus, calculus, tumulus, stylus, hippopotamus, isthmus, animus, humus, anus, tetanus, Venus, tetanus, genus, terminus, alumnus, campus, opus, Lazarus, virus, plesiosaurus, papyrus, Pegasus, Croesus, census, versus, narcissus, apparatus, status, f(o)etus, tinnitus, coitus, emeritus, nexus.
In the case of words ending in -as, -is, -os or -us, the final consonant is a voiceless /s/. But with those ending in -es it is a voiced /z/.
I have no idea why there is this difference. But it corresponds to how we pronounced Latin when I was at school. Dominus was ˈdɒmɪnəs, librīs was ˈlɪbriːs, but spēs was speɪz.
In classical times Latin s represented a voiceless sound in all positions (Allen, Vox Latina, p. 35): so there’s no justification there for our English voiced /z/ in series and diabetes. I wonder where it came from.

17 comments:

  1. The traditional pronunciation of Latin in the English tradition is complicated, but could it be: after a long monophthong -> z, after a short vowel or a diphthong -> s?

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  2. Another guess might be similarity to English plural -y > -ies. At least faeces, scabies, rabies, species, and series have a sort of feeling of plurality about them.

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  3. @Lipman: no, that can't be it, because mensās, dominōs, virtūs all have /s/.

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  4. But they aren't long monophthongs in the traditional pronunciation, or are they? (Haven't the time to check now, I'm afraid.)

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  5. In -as, -is, -us, the vowels are all lax [əs] ~ [ɪs]; -os is lax [ɑs] or [əs]~[ɪs] (except for ‘cosmos’ which for me is /'kɑzmos/). In -es, the vowel is consistently tense [iz].

    Also, Latin/Greek words ending in -ns (Aruns/Tiryns) and -rs (ars) have a voiced /z/.

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  6. But the reduction to ə is a matter of the 20th century, isn't it? (I think the post-stress vowels were short, but not reduced to ə, though I don't know if they were actually long in "Middle English Latin", be it when they were long in Latin or according to other rules. Really an excellent puzzle, professor!)

    And why the difference between -is = [ɪs] and -es = [ɪz]?

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  7. Words in [is] are quite rare in English: a quick scan finds only caprice, cease, cerise, crease, fleece, geese, grease, Greece, lease, niece, obese, peace, piece, police, valise, and their derivatives. At least in American English, these all bear final stress, and even derivatives like increase (n.) have at least secondary stress on the final syllable. No Latin word, or Henninianly-stressed Greek word, ever has final stress, and English just doesn't seem to like final unstressed [is]. So that's my best shot.

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  8. Ending in [is], I meant to say, of course.

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  9. Those words might not be many, but they aren't exceptions and they aren't rare. (Valise is pronounced -[s] in GenAm, btw?)

    What's more, are there so many more core words in [ʊs], [uːs] &c.?

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  10. Everybody seems to be overlooking the point that in English school LATIN the -ēs ending is pronounced with eɪ, not iː. So e.g. "fīdēs" = ˈfiːdeɪz. As Latin words, we had no trouble with saying e.g. "dominīs" (ablative plural) with final iːs. The anomaly thus applies to forms determined by their spelling (-es), not by their pronunciation, which differed between school Latin and Latin-derived English.

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  11. Perhaps there is some affinity between /z/ and /i/? I recall a trivium from David Pentland about a dialect of Japanese in which /i/ because /z/ in some words (which interested the two of us in the context of syllabic obstruents). On the other hand, in Blackfoot syllabic /s/ can also in many cases be traced to synchronic or diachronic /i/ (though Blackfoot doesn't have /z/).

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  12. P.S. The above was my post; I forgot to sign out of my wife's account.

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  13. @Ryan: I'm interested in what you say above about Japanese. Do you happen to remember where David Pentland made such a remark?

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  14. You might want to check out an article in the "Classical Journal": The Pronunciation of Greek and Latin Proper Names in English by Walter Miller. The original Latin vowel length is ignored in English pronunciation, except for its role in the designation of the stressed syllable, either penult or antipenult. Once stress has been determined, Latin length is essentially wiped out and English rules of “length” come into play. Latin Cybelē /ky'bele:/ becomes English /sɪ'bi:li/

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  15. Everybody seems to be overlooking the point that in English school LATIN the -ēs ending is pronounced with eɪ, not iː

    Today's English school Latin, the so-called New Pronunciation (NP). But the English-from-Latin words you list above precede this. Here is a short summary of the traditional pronunciation: click.

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  16. @Adayan: Unfortunately it was during conversation at the Algonquian Conference, so I'm not sure what source he was referring to.

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  17. Maybe this has to do with the difference between e.g. parenthesis – parentheses?

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