On The Subtle Satemization Of Centum In Modern English

Something I’ve been meaning to remark upon for awhile, is this rather amusing irony when it comes to the Centum-Satem divide in Indo-European linguistics.

Now, for those unaware, you can classify most Indo-European languages into one of two categories – “Centum” languages, wherein an array of “K-” [and some “G-“] sounds and particles in Proto-Indo-European , basically kept going in a “K-“ish direction; and “Satem” languages, wherein the corresponding terms tend to have “S-” (or “Z-“/”Dz-“, etc.) particles instead.

If you’re wondering why the sorting typology’s called Centum/Satem – it’s because both of these terms mean “Hundred”, thus handily showing the phenomenon in action.

(Oh, and as a minor point of semi-solicitated etymological trivia .. “Hundred” itself, is also, oddly enough, well within the “Centum” categorization, because there’s actually a reasonably well-attested K=>H phonetic shift which occurs in the development of Germanic languages … like, consider Latin “Quid” [‘Kwid’] vs Germanic “Hwat” (which is where “What” in modern English comes from]; or Latin “Canis” vs Germanic “Hound” ; Latin “Caldus” vs Germanic “Hot” , etc.]

But why do I find this amusing?

Well, you see, for various reasons – here in English, we often pronounce a “C” … in some rather odd ways, historically-linguistically speaking.

I mean, the way it’s supposed to be said – as in, for instance, my name, “Crow”, “Cryo-“, or in “Celt”, is the “Hard-C” – that is to say, the “K-” sound. [I would have said “like in Cold” … but as you’ll have noted above … that’s an instance wherein it’s very phonetically similar to the Romance Languages term meaning “warm”, so go figure 😛 ].

Yet in many instances, we don’t do that. Instead pronouncing it as, I believe the term is a “soft-C” – like in “Cyclone”, or “City”, or indeed, in “Icy” … and rather egregiously, in “Caesar” (actually pronounced much more like the Germans’ “Kaiser”), or in “Celtic” when one is referring to a particular football team.

It’s regrettably common when it comes to Latinate-derived words – with, in addition to the “Caesar” example mentioned above, “Circus”, “Cellar”, “Civil”, “Censor”, etc. being among the more common [hard-c there again] examples.

Although the one you’re probably most directly acquainted with … is “Cent” – as in, the unit of (decimal [- there’s another one]) currency, or the core particle of the units of measurement (centimeter, degrees centigrade, etc.).

What does “Cent” mean?

Why, “Hundred”, of course …

… so why do I find all this funny?

Because after several thousand years of divergent evolution, Modern ENglish has effectively managed to take our inherited “Centum” particle … and turn it into something much more phonetically coterminous [hard-c there again] with the “Satem” particles found in the “other branch” of Indo-European languages. (i.e. an accidental partial “re-unification” of sorts – rendered all the more … pronounced (sorry), due to its occurrence most prominently on literally one of the two words in “Centum-Satem”. – which, if you’re reading this in your head, probably sound more alike now than they’ve done for many thousands of years);

Now, to be sure, there have been movements back against this trend, over the past century or two – hence why “Celt” has gone back to something more closely approximating its Latinate pronunciation, for instance.

But it’s hard to imagine much of the rest of our historically inappropriate “soft-C” sounds words doing likewise. (while “akkelerate” has an interesting feel to it, going around saying “Kent” as a unit of measurement or in terms of payment, is probably not going to catch on; although it does also occur that there are perhaps a few examples of terms like “Celestial” wherein one would hope that when confronted with its earlier iterations in English like “Caelestial” and “Coelestial”, the “hard-C” would instinctively reassert itself].

Indeed, given the ongoing silliness around “Gif” [as in .gif] – where what should by all rights be a “Hard-G” sound [I mean ..”Graphics Interchange Format” is what the acronym stands for, no?] is occasionally pronounced as “Jif” (including, for some ineffable reason, by the format’s, and therefore the term’s creator] … which may perhaps be thought to replicate another archaic sound-shift phenomenon [G=>J; which I may detail in greater depth in another post .. but suffice to say, PIE stems at the root of “Glory” and “God” and “Glow” working out as “Jaya” and “Johuyate”/”Juhoti” [I’m playing a bit fast and loose there as there’s actually a J=>H further shift going on – c.f “Havan” and “Hotr”, etc. which showcase the root better] and “Jvalati” , respectively] …

… perhaps it is once again a case of “The Future Is The Past”.

Although given the realities of phonetic shifts in practice, even if history does repeat … I’m not quite sure if it’s still going to “rhyme” [to reference me an aphorism of somebody who probably wasn’t Mark Twain].

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