Sunday August 21, 2005

Convergent Etymology

I recently noticed an interesting class of English words, and I'm wondering if you, gentle readers, can think of any more examples.  Now, there's a bunch of pairs (or larger groups) of words in English that share the same pronunciation but not the same spelling, which usually occurs when words with different origins happen to evolve the same pronunciation.  The words I'm thinking of are sort of the opposite: they share a common etymological origin and the same spelling, but they differ in meaning and pronunciation.

Here are the two examples I noticed:

ablative:  There are two words with this spelling.  One is pronounced AB-luh-tiv, and it refers to a grammatical case in Latin and other languages.  The other is pronounced uh-BLATE-iv, and it refers to (among other things) a kind of shielding used in the space program that protects a spacecraft during re-entry.  Both of these words derive ultimately from the perfect passive participle ablatus of the Latin verb auferre, 'carry away', although the aerospace sense was apparently derived from the English verb ablate.

(I first encountered this distinction in pronunciation high school when I was talking to my father about the Apollo program, and referred to the shielding using the Latin-grammar pronunciation I was familiar with from language class.  Come to think of it, ablative shielding really ought to mean something in the grammatical context, something like an ablative absolute or dative of agent...)

primer:  When pronounced PRIH-mer, this word refers to a child's introductory textbook, but when pronounced PRIME-er, it refers to a preparatory layer of paint or the thing that sets off an explosive.  Although the OED is a little doubtful about the origin of the verb prime that the second definition is derived from, they both seem ultimately to come from the Latin primus, 'first'.

So, can you think of any other examples?  Note that I'm not thinking of pairs of words that share the same spelling that are related by some productive morphological process.  In particular, examples like reject where ruh-JECT is a verb and RE-ject is a noun don't really count—that's not a case where two words share the same ultimate origin but evolved along different paths that converged.

ObSF: the only current Google hit for the phrase "convergent etymology" is coincidentally about linguistics in science fiction.  It's about a scene in Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Barrayar (aside: check out the comic-booky cover of the French edition Amazon suggested, I guess because I'm browsing from Lisbon) in which it is revealed that the title count on the eponymous fictional planet is not actually derived from the homophonous Earth title:

"Where do you think the term 'Count' came from, anyway?"
"Earth, I thought.  A pre-atomic—late Roman, actually—term for a nobleman who ran a county.  Or maybe the district was named after the rank."
"On Barrayar, it is in fact a contraction of the term 'accountant.'  The first 'counts were Varadar Tau's—an amazing bandit, you should read up on him sometime—Varadar Tau's tax collectors."  (p. 78)

Note that this wouldn't actually qualify as an example of the kind of convergent etymology I'm talking about in this post, because count the verb comes from Latin computare 'to calculate', while count the title comes from Latin comes, 'companion'.  Still, who am I to turn down a serendipitous chance to geek out?

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Could you please post those words in IPA? I've no idea what form of English you use you see, and I'm not a native myself. (What the huh is IH supposed to be?) Anyway, intersting to see how much IPA is in fact used in the non-English world; I started learning it when I was ten, in school, in order to master the pronunciation of a very British sounding English.

Posted by: anonymice at Aug 22, 2005 2:45:02 AM

I can think of another one: secreted, with accent on the first syllable being the past tense of 'to secret' [something away] and accent on the second syllable being the past tense of 'to secrete' [something from a gland]. I'm guessing you aren't really interested in ones of the 'address' noun/verb pair type.

Posted by: Bridget at Aug 22, 2005 9:16:31 AM

Tensor's "IH" is the short-i sound in 'sit' or 'prim'. Incidentally, does anyone know how to represent all the IPA symbols in html? Are there &___; codes for them?

Posted by: king alfred at Aug 22, 2005 11:52:20 AM

There is no verb "secret" (check your dictionary). I pronounce both senses of "secreted" with the accent on the second syllable, and wasn't aware there was an alternate pronunciation SE-creted until checking with Merriam-Webster's just now. You learn something every day.

Other examples are MINute/minUTE, INvalid/inVALid and PROcess/proCESS ('move in a procession'). What about analyses, which is aNALiseez as a noun and A-nalyzez as a verb (using British spelling)? And bases as plural of base and basis? And pension in the European (boardinghouse) sense versus the retirement sense? What about august/August? Prayer 'message to god' vs 'one who prays'? I'm not sure what your parameters are.

Posted by: language hat at Aug 22, 2005 12:22:27 PM

There are Unicode codes for IPA symbols; alternatively, you can use SAMPA and stick with ASCII characters, which are easier to type but harder to read unless you're used to them.

For me, both primers are pronounced pr[aj]mer, although I'm passively aware of the pr[ɪ]mer pronunciation. And the secreted pair is complicated by the fact that there's another secrete that sounds and is spelled like secrete (from a gland) but has the meaning of secret (away).

Of course, if you took away the "same spelling" requirement, the possibilities would expand tremendously—we'd let in shirt/skirt and otter/hydro/vodka/undulate/whisk(e)y and all sorts of others....

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Aug 22, 2005 12:34:09 PM

Hat, many of those examples are mentioned in Alfred's post. And if you check your dictionary carefully, you'll note that there was a verb secret which turned into secrete2 (although perhaps not for everyone).

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Aug 22, 2005 12:40:32 PM

Oh, I hadn't thought of pension or analyses. I suppose I wasn't quite sure either what counted, so I didn't include invalid or prayer, mainly b/c the difference in pronunciation occured in English, not (like with refuse) in another language just before importation.

Thanks for the code help, Pheevr. It's definitely fun to find wildly different words ending up being related to each other. Hmm. Maybe I'll start a contest...

Posted by: king alfred at Aug 22, 2005 1:37:04 PM

wow! I pronounce ablative the same way. Ditto Primer, never heard any other kind of pronunciation for that one. Interesting maybe you could give us an example of Primer used in context to illustrate the different pronunciations.

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 22, 2005 3:29:16 PM

I grew up saying pr[ɪ]mer for things like "Wright's Old High German Primer" and "The Kitchen Primer"--a cookbook of my mother's that occasioned my first memory of the word spoken aloud. I always thought that when the meaning is more directly associated with the verb (to prime), then it was pronounced to sound more like it. But older words were more likely to shorten their vowels: like (what I think is) the British pronunciation of privacy ['prɪvəsi] and primacy [prɪməsi], and my own pronunciation of granary ['grænəri].

Posted by: king alfred at Aug 22, 2005 4:26:43 PM

Hat, many of those examples are mentioned in Alfred's post

I didn't go searching the blogosphere for people who might have responded to this. If you don't post it in this thread, it doesn't exist, as far as I'm concerned.

And if you check your dictionary carefully, you'll note that there was a verb secret which turned into secrete2

Yeah, there are lots of words that used to exist but don't any more. Bridget was using it as if it were a current vocabulary item, which it isn't.

I'm really surprised there are so many people who pronounce primer the same in both senses. I wonder if it's a regional thing?

Posted by: language hat at Aug 22, 2005 5:39:31 PM

This isn't what you want exactly, as it's grammatically regular, but there are the adverbs 'multiply' and 'supply' beside with the verbs.

Posted by: aput at Aug 23, 2005 7:57:02 AM

Seems I've been speaking the English language wrong lo,these 40 years!
-Primer ( 'i' as eye)
-Supply both verb and adverb with the stress on the double 'p'.
- I really didn't know that there was a difference between AE and BE for 'privacy'(see primer above).
-and multiply is multiply is multiply.
Have i been speaking my native language wrongly all these years?

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 24, 2005 5:11:13 AM

-Privacy: I just heard a British character on TV last night pronounce privacy as pr[ɪ]vacy, whereas I've never heard and can't imagine an American saying anything but pr[aj]vacy.
-Supply: Alistair, are you saying that where you're from the verb (to provide someone with something) is pronounced SUPP-lee ['səp-li] (or perhaps ['səp-laj]), instead of [səp-'laj]? That's fascinating, and a new one for me. Where are you from, if I may ask? Incidentally, ['səp-li] is how I pronounce the adverb from 'supple'.

Posted by: king alfred at Aug 24, 2005 2:18:35 PM

And no, Alistair, no one's saying you're not speaking your own language incorrectly; I think we're all interesting in finding both the variations, and the most common, among pronunciations. Hearing people say somthing, and reproducing it imperfectly is one thing, but a community all pronouncing something the same (even if different from other speakers of the language) is not incorrect, it's data. :-)

Posted by: king alfred at Aug 24, 2005 3:29:47 PM

Hey Hat, if *I* think there's a verb 'to secret', then... there's a verb 'to secret'! ;-) It's not hard to see how I could backform it from 'secreted' in the appropriate sense, and I know I'm not the only one-- there are 175 hits on Google just for "secret it away" ("secret * away" gives 42000+, but there are a lot of irrelevant hits).

Posted by: Bridget at Aug 25, 2005 2:59:33 PM

sorry Alfred: I thought of supply as verb and noun [səp-'laj]. The adverb from supple is normally pronounced SUPP-p-lee. I'm from Bedfordshire, England by the way. But my accent could be described as EE (estuary english) with a hint of eastern counties. Though rounded down now after many years of teaching.

Posted by: Alistair at Aug 25, 2005 3:39:58 PM

How about minute? As in "It took her only a minute to read the minute print in the minutes."

Posted by: plopez at Sep 5, 2005 10:48:50 AM

Since geekery is encouraged, I'll point out there was a superhero named the Minute Man.

He was angry because the public thought he would be a Revolutionary War themed hero. But he wasn't.

Minute Man could shrink until really, really tiny. Until he was minute. He would tell people he wasn't the Minute Man, he was the Minute Man.

Mark Newman
fanboy (and journalist/photog)
The Ottumwa Courier (newspaper)
in Iowa

Posted by: Mark Newman at Jan 29, 2009 9:19:35 AM

Nark/Narc has a similar convergent etymology. Its use as a tattler comes from Old English, and it's use as a drug-sniffer/tattler derives from "narcotics officer", which comes from "narcotics", which derives from Greek. Somehow the two terms, with their completely separate etymologies, have conflated into the same word.

Posted by: Rodney at Mar 31, 2013 2:45:58 PM