Thursday 17 February 2011

Latin double velars

Consider the everyday words accelerate, accept, accident, success, vaccine. They demonstrate the English spelling-to-sound principle that where double -cc- is followed by e or i the pronunciation is ks. Thus we have əkˈseləreɪt, əkˈsept, ˈæksɪdənt, səkˈses, ˈvæksiːn.

There are two rather rarer words where not all speakers follow this principle. One is flaccid, where ˈflæsɪd competes with the expected ˈflæksɪd. The other is succinct, where I have just heard an American narrator on the BBC pronounce səˈsɪŋkt rather than the səkˈsɪŋkt that I would say myself. I can think of no reason why these two words should be exceptions to the general rule. Like the others, they are of Latin origin. Their pronunciation goes back to a Latin double -cc-, which was classically kk but subsequently had the second velar ‘softened’ when it developed into or s in late Latin and the successor Romance languages.

As you would expect, this being English spelling, there are a handful of other words that violate the rule. Soccer ˈsɒkə, ˈsɑkɚ obviously “ought” to be spelt socker. And lovers of classical music will be familiar with Italian names such as Puccini puˈtʃiːni and Pagliacci.

Strangely, the corresponding rule doesn’t work in the case of the voiced etymological equivalent. In exaggerate ɪɡˈzædʒəreɪt we have simple , not *ɡdʒ. In suggest Brits have simple , thus səˈdʒest, but most Americans have ɡdʒ, thus səɡˈdʒest. Otherwise the velar remains unsoftened; there don’t seem to be any other Latin-derived words with -gge- or -ggi-. Double gg stands for simple g in occasional non-Latin-derived words such as druggist and digging. And then there’s ciggy ˈsɪɡi, colloquial abbreviation of cigarette, which demonstrates the use of -gg- in informal spelling.

If you’d like to wallow further in the irregularities and inconsistencies of English spelling, allow me to recommend Masha Bell’s blog.


  1. Very succinct summary of the situation.

    I've often thought flaccid should be /ˈflæksɪd/ but I've never heard it; everyone I know says /ˈflæsɪd/. Is there a corresponding noun flacco(u)r /ˈflækə/? Not that that would make a difference.

    But I agree that succinct is usually /səkˈsɪŋkt/, though I've also noticed people saying /səˈsɪŋkt/ too.

    Soccer is apparently an abbreviation of association so neither the double C in the spelling nor the "hard" velar pronunciation makes much sense. The other word that break the rule, recce /ˈreki/, is also an abbreviation.

  2. Another exception is baccy for tobacco, perhaps influenced by the spelling.

  3. I think the reason why -cc- and -gg- are treated differently is that the voiced hard /g/ developed into an affricate /ʤ/, while the unvoiced /k/ developed into a fricative /s/. Pronouncing a stop followed by a fricative is common, but a stop followed by an affricate is not so much. So if /gg/ had moved on to develop into /gz/ (in parallel with -cc-) after the actual /gʤ/ step, we would have a /gz/ symmetric to /ks/, which could potentially soften to /z/. But then exaggerate would have two /gz/'s, I wonder which of them would soften...

  4. Pete: "Soccer is apparently an abbreviation of association so neither the double C in the spelling nor the "hard" velar pronunciation makes much sense."

    Yes I was going to bring that up, but I figured everyone knew that already. It was actually Englishman who came up with that.

  5. What about the Latinate plurals of the various -coccus bacteria -- streptococci, staphylococci, pneumococci and so on? I see that the OED recommends /-ˈkɒksaɪ/ but I'm sure I've heard /-ˈkɒkaɪ/ said by people for whom the pull of the hard /k/ remembered from the singular is presumably irresistible also in the plural. It is how I'd want to pronounce it and Googling reveals several sites which recommend it as a possible pronunciation.

  6. In Italian cc is a geminate, i.e. Puccini is /put' (with the stressed unchecked vowel being allophonically lengthened), BTW.

  7. Yeah baccy is also an exception because y behaves like i for these purposes.

    I must confess to a prescriptivist niggle here too: I get annoyed when the verb synch (short for synchronise/-ize) is spelt sync because it leads to the participles syncing and synced, which to me look like /ˈsɪnsɪŋ/ and /ˈsɪnst/ rather than the intended /ˈsɪŋkɪŋ/ and /ˈsɪŋkt/. The word is very common in my line of work and I always spell it synch/synching/synched. Apart from being etymologically part of the first syllable, the h is necessary to protect the c.

  8. Surely the gg spelling in suggestand exaggerate is a simple marker of short vowel length?

    In English, that is. The value of ggin Latin is scarcely relevant, since everybody used the local spelling pronunciation of Latin until the nineteenth century.

    In these words the sound is 'soft' for historical reasons. In dagger, begging, rigger, logger, lugger the sound is 'hard' for historical reasons — in the face of spellings with following e or i that suggest otherwise. Similarly for your druggist and digging.

    The same is true for soccer and baccy — spellings invented for abbreviations of words invented (or incorporated) long after the conventions that determined locker were fully productive.

    Ciggy is a similar abbreviation of a new word. But here there is no older convention being ignored. The spelling ck for 'hard c' mirrors French qu, Italian ch etc. But there's no regular and productive English equivalent to French gu, Italian gh etc.

  9. To me synch looks like /sɪnʧ/, like inch or finch. I'd write synk or synck.

  10. teardrop

    But who would understand you?

  11. I suggest that 'suggest' as /sə`ʤest/is the 'natural' development and that 'accept' has had a 'le·rnèd' restoration of its [k]. Both were medieval borrowings. Medieval French had 'acepter' as OED tells us.

  12. I suspect that sussinct is a failure to fully articulate the [k] rather than a pronunciation variant. If you stopped the person and asked them to repeat it slowly, you probably would get succinct again.

  13. David Crosbie,

    I would still pronounce it /sɪŋk/, I'd only change its spelling. Sync is somewhat similar to panic, which becomes panicked and panicking, so I could imagine sync becoming syncked and syncking, but a word final -nck doesn't occur too often in English, that's why I'd respell it as synk, which corresponds to pronunciation, and its -ed and -ing forms are clear-cut, too.

  14. JWL

    Accept and some other acc-words may be learnèd restorations, but other words came directly from Latin — notably success, cognates of which have cc in French and Italian.

    The OED cites a fifteenth century spelling sukces.

  15. teardrop

    Yes, I can see what pronunciation you would use. But would your readers associate those spellings with sync?

  16. David,

    I don't think it would be more difficult to decode synk for sync than disk for disc, or hiccup for hiccough, which is just another -cc- word.

  17. teardrop

    The spelling synk would be easily decoded for sound, but not for meaning.

  18. David,

    well, if I saw synk out of context, maybe I wouldn't find out its meaning. But out of context even /sɪŋk/ is ambiguous (sink, sync). But if one is aware that sync is a short term for synchronize (or synchronization), I believe they could easily map synk to sync, too. Just like people map thru to through.

  19. I would have felt quite confident in thinking 'synch' was the earlier for, but not according to the OED. It may have been a previous unsuccessful attempt to deal with the absurd situation that you are proposing to deal with by writing 'synk' etc. But the OED confirms I was right in being confident that the reverse had happened with mike>mic, giving us the no less absurd 'miced up' for 'miked up' etc. It's just no good knocking your head against these things.

    >Accept and some other acc-words may be learnèd restorations, but other words came directly from Latin — notably success, cognates of which have cc in French and Italian.

    >The OED cites a fifteenth century spelling sukces.<

    That didn't stop Spanish and Portuguese spelling dropping the first c, although dropping mute c in similar positions in Pt spellings is a war the Portuguese are still fighting and the Brazilians are winning.

    Certainly I always supposed the first g in AmE 'suggest' to be a learnèd restoration, and OED's reported '16th-century 'sugiest' parallels their 14th cent. 'acepter', to which JWL has already referred. Similarly with the first g in French suggérer, but the surviving (or attrited?) pronunciation without it is probably not in such good shape as in AmE (LPD Preference poll, American English: with ɡ 77%, without ɡ 23%).

  20. dropping mute c > dropping mute anything

  21. mallamb

    Yes, I'd noticed Spanish and Portuguese spellings. I don't think they cast any light on the generality of post-Latin forms.

    I've yet to encounter any cc word with a continuous history. They all seem to be Romance words taken from written Classical/Church Latin. Not so much sound changes operating in words as a changes in the mode of reading written words aloud.

    What happened to ecce ille was pretty drastic, but not doubt untypical. Do you know any examples of cc words attested in later spoken Latin?

  22. mallamb

    Miced up may be absurd, but it's the conventionally accepted form. Adopting a less absurd spelling that flouts convention may make the writer feel better, but is far from a guarantee of communication.

  23. But online dictionaries show that it's not actually the conventionally accepted form Only one has "mic'ed" whereas 7 have "miked", Far more of course recognize both mic and mike as verbal forms, but not apparently the OED. Either way 'mike' was the earlier form, and it was the more absurd spelling that did flout convention that was adopted.

    Can't see quite what you're after with "cc words attested in later spoken Latin".

  24. "Coccyx" is another word that gets funny pronunciations. Sometimes deliberately.

    "Miced up may be absurd, but it's the conventionally accepted form."

    I don't think that battle is over yet, though it's probably lost. "Mic" is a form that makes me long for a good old abbreviation period: "mic." Ahh, that's better.

  25. mallamb

    I should have made clear that I was thinking of words in Classical Latin with cc spelling before a front vowel. Before a back vowel nothing that happened would be remarkable.

    I'm questioning the wording of John's

    a Latin double -cc-, which was classically kk but subsequently had the second velar ‘softened’ when it developed into tʃ or s in late Latin and the successor Romance languages.

    Do we have evidence of any word with cc spelling surviving through the late stage of Latin with a pronunciation consisting of a sequence of two allophones? If not, then all we have is an invention in the early Romance languages — a re-adoption of words dropped from colloquial language and the application of different spelling pronunciations to the two c letters.

    The only word that I've been able to find as definitively part of colloquial late Latin is ecce — but only in combinations that gave rise to cel etc. Since it also gave rise to aquel, I think we can regard it as problematic. But it does reming me that one would expect Classical cc to represent a geminate /k/, and wouldn't expect this sound to split into a sequence of allophones.

    The fact that I've found no examples proves nothing. I just wondered whether you or anyone else knew of any.

  26. M.A.L. Lamb: It's conventional in the audio industry to write mic, miced, micing; other English-speakers and their dictionaries have not yet caught up.


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