Monday, 12 April 2010

Caribbean centipedes

There was an interesting pronunciation that I observed during my recent stay in Montserrat in the Caribbean: centipede pronounced as ˈsantipi. Not only is the final d lost as compared with the BrE/AmE ˈsentɪpiːd, -ə-, but the stressed vowel is that of TRAP rather than the usual DRESS.
The only published book about Montserratian speech, George Irish’s Alliouagana Folk (Plymouth: Jagpi, 1985), is a collection of local proverbs, sayings, words and phrases. It duly records this word in its glossary.
santipee - centipede
Richard Allsopp’s scholarly Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (OUP 1996) also records this pronunciation of the word (though with a different medial vowel) as common to the entire Caribbean English Creole region, and speculates about its origin as Portuguese.I can see that a Portuguese source could explain the loss of the final consonant — though this could also be due to the characteristic Creole uncertainty about final d (compare for instance galvanize meaning ‘corrugated metal roofing’, shortened from galvanized iron). Apart from that, though, I would have thought that Portuguese centopeia, phonetically sẽtoˈpeja, does not seem on phonetic grounds to be a more likely source than a straightforward English origin. (OK, English got it via French from Latin centipeda ‘hundred-foot’, as did the Portuguese.)


  1. I wonder if French got into the pot somehow. When I saw that /san/ I immediately thought of French centipède, which would begin with /sã/. But alas, French does not appear to have such a word, no matter what the OED says: mille-pattes is used for both English millipede and centipede, and there is also scolopendre corresponding to the Linnaean genus name Scolopendra. Still, there may have been such a word in the past: I don't have access to any French historical dictionaries.

    The OED does record uses of centapee, centipee, centapie in standard English contexts — always referring to the West Indies — throughout the 18th century. The etymology section explains this as "prob. from Sp.", which is absurd, as the Spanish form is ciempiés.

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