Monday, 15 February 2016

Centum vs Satem and the letter C

So you know how the letter 'c' is sometimes soft (like city) and sometimes hard (like cut), and sometimes both (like circle)? There's a good reason for that. (Note that 'g' also has hard and soft versions - gut vs gentle.)

In Latin, all 'c's are hard. Hundred, centum is pronounced 'kentum'. In English, some 'c's are hard, and some are soft. Generally, those followed by 'front' vowels are soft, like city and century (think where the vowel sound is in your mouth - it's just behind your teeth). Compare this with the 'back' vowels, like cut, cat, cot (these are in the back of your mouth, near your throat).

One of the very early splits in the PIE was on this s/k sound, as characterised by the word for 'hundred'. The peoples who moved south-eastwards eventually softened this PIE word for hundred from something like dkmtom to something more sibilant. The languages on the right of the chart (Indian, Iranian, Balto-Slavic) derive from this s-sound side, the 'satem' families. The Latin, Greek, and Germanic words come from the k-sound side, the centum (kentum) branch.

That doovey chart I pinched from Wikipedia (reproduced below) is carefully plotted into two halves. On the left are the 'centum' languages, ; on the right are the 'satem' languages.

This tendency to soften a 'k' sound recurs later on the centum side: the English word cent [SENT] comes from the French word for hundred, with its soft 'c'. In Italian, some of the 'c's became 'ch', so hundred there is pronounced 'CHEN-tey'. (Okay, so my phonetic representations need work - my linguistics subject this coming semester should help with that.)

From Wikipedia

Podcast: History of English #5: Centum, Satem and the Letter C

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