Pneumonia, Amnesia, and Knee

Etymological Entertainments #3

Today I want to talk a little more about phonotactics, that is, the rules of sound combination in various languages. In an earlier post (“Etymological Entertainments #2”) I noted that when we say the English word “pterodactyl” we don’t pronounce the initial “p”—we say “teradactyl”. The initial cluster “pt” is not allowed in English, but we get the word from ancient Greek roots, and in ancient Greek “pt” could be pronounced.

The initial cluster “pt” is not the only Greek combination that English doesn’t allow. When we say the word “pneumonia” we leave off the initial “p” and just say “neumonia”. But Greek does allow initial “pn”. The Greek verb “pneô” means “to breathe”; “pneuma” means “wind” or “air”; and “pneumôn” means “the organs of breathing”, that is, “the lungs”, and so on. There are some other Greek words beginning with “pn”: “pnigô” means “to choke” or “to strangle”, “pnigeus” means “an oven”, and the location in Athens were certain meetings of the people were held was called the “Pnyx”.

English has used the root “pne-” in several words having to do with breathing and the lungs and air, including “pneumonia” and “pneumatic”; most of the others are technical. The name of the sleeping disorder called “sleep apnea” comes from the same root: “apnea” is a compound of the negative particle “a” (called “alpha privative”) and the root “pne-”, so “apnea” means “not breathing”. In this word we can pronounce the “p” by attaching it to the initial “a”: we say “ap-nea” rather than “a-pnea”. (Incidentally, the French word “pneu” means an inflated tire, and according to my French dictionary, both the “p” and the “n” are pronounced.)

Another Greek initial cluster that isn’t allowed in English is “mn”, as in the word “mnemonic”, which we pronounce “nemonic”. A “mnemonic device” is a trick used to remember something: I use the phrase “Yes, I have a number” to remember the first few digits of the number pi: 3.1416 and so on: the number of letters in each word gives one of the digits. (Actually 3.14159 is closer, but not by much). The Greek noun “mnêmê” means “memory”, the Greek verb “mnaomai” means “to remember”, and there is a whole group of related words, including “Mnêmosynê”, the goddess of Memory and the mother of the Muses. In English we also have the word “amnesia”, “not remembering”, which is a compound of that negative particle “a” and the root “mne-”; in this word we can pronounce the “m” by attaching it to the “a”: “am-nesia” rather than “a-mnesia”.

Another Greek word beginning with the cluster “mn” is “mna”, which was a sum of money equal to 100 drachmas. Latin took over this word, but Latin, like English, didn’t allow initial “mn”, so they spelled it and pronounced it “mina”.

Greek is not the only source of unpronounceable clusters in English. There is a whole group of English words spelled with initial “kn”: knee; knack; knave; knead; knell; knife; knight; knit; knot; knock; knoll; knuckle. When we say these in English we leave off the initial “k”, so “knee” is pronounced “nee” and “knack” is pronounced “nack”. All of these “kn” words have relatives in other Germanic languages. In German, the word for “knee” is “Knie”, and it’s pronounced with the initial “k” fully sounded. It would take too long to go through the whole list, but here are a few examples. Note that the meanings can change in interesting ways, but that’s a topic for another post.

knave: this derives from the Old English ‘cnafa’ or ‘cnapa’, which meant ‘boy, youth, sevant’; in modern English ‘knave’ is insulting, but the related modern German word ‘Knabe’ just means a young boy.

knife: this was spelled ‘cnif’ in Old English; the modern German word for ‘knife’, ‘Messer’, is not related, but in Danish, which is another Germanic language, the word is ‘kniv’.

knight: the Old English ‘cniht’ or ‘cneoht’ meant ‘boy, attendant, servant, retainer’; the modern German ‘Knecht’ means ‘farmhand’ or ‘servant’.

All of these are Germanic words. When English was Old English, the initial “kn” or “cn” could be pronounced, just as “kn” can be pronounced in modern German. But at some point English lost the ability to pronounce that initial cluster, although we still keep it in our spelling.

Because I didn’t grow up speaking German, I find it hard to pronounce initial “kn”, and when I try to say the German “Knie” I suspect I insert a faint vowel: “ka-Nee”, in the same way that Latin speakers inserted a vowel in the Greek “mna” to get “mina”. Some English speakers may even suspect that ancient Greek speakers really must have inserted a vowel into “pter” or “pneu” and that German speakers really must insert a vowel into “Knie” or “Knect”. There is a strong impulse to assume that the phonotactics of your native language are the real and natural phonotactics, and other languages can’t really have different rules. This principle, which we can call the principle of naturalization, could apply to other parts of culture as well, but that’s a topic beyond the competence of philology.

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