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How courteous are you at court?

By Anatoly Liberman


“Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to look at the Queen,/ Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, what did you there?/ I frightened a little mouse under the chair.” Evidently, our power of observation depends on our background and current interests. Being a linguist, I care more about words than about things and would like to understand why court rhymes with short, while the first syllable of courteous has the vowel of curtain. By the way, some dictionaries record two pronunciations of courteous: with -urt and with -ort after c-. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966) is one of them. Since none of the books I consulted explains the existence of two variants, I will risk a suggestion of my own in the hope that someone may come up with a better one.

We may begin with court. The word appeared in Middle English as a borrowing from Anglo-French. Its etymon is Latin curtem (accusative), from cortem “yard, enclosure,” a contraction of cohortem “enclosure, company, crowd” (whence cohort). Old French had cort. The digraph ou in court, familiar from Modern French cour and Modern Engl. court, indicated long u (the sound as in  Engl. shoe, who, too). In English, seemingly some time around 1500, French long u became a more open vowel (that is, long o, approximately as in British Engl. law), which in English is retained to this day. Course and source have the same spelling, and their phonetic history was similar. The loss of r in the r-less dialects of English did not affect the preceding vowel.

Our next station is courtesy, which has also been recorded with two pronunciations. Middle Engl. court appeared as a competitor of Germanic yard. If there had been no Norman Conquest, yard would probably have taken over the senses of the French noun (compare German Hof and Russian dvor “yard”: both mean “yard” and “court”). As a consolation prize, English has the tautological compound courtyard. But the word courtesy so clearly belongs to good manners and courtly behavior that, given the Norman domination, the concept had to come from French. Old French curtesie, like Modern French courtoisie, had stress on the last syllable, and in my opinion this circumstance was of decisive importance in the fortune of the English borrowing. In English, such words gradually shifted stress to the beginning, though the process took centuries, and vacillation never ended. Most of us are aware of variant pronunciations in exquisite, recondite, vagary, formidable, capitalist, and others. As far as courtesy is concerned, initial stress has won a complete victory. In English, middle syllables are not articulated with the distinctness typical of French and tend to disappear in casual speech.

Suppression of middle syllables in long words is common, ordinary process. I highlighted ordinary, because of all such words it has undergone the most radical change. The somewhat slipshod pronunciation ord’nary will leave most of us indifferent. But its whole middle has been destroyed by rapid pronunciation, so that its etymological doublet ornery (an American creation) came into being. Not only is ornery an almost unrecognizable offspring of ordinary; the development of its meaning, from “commonplace” to “stubborn; ugly” causes surprise. Usually phonetic changes in the so-called allegro speech are less drastic. For instance, some people make a distinction in their pronunciation of medicine: if the reference is to the art of healing, they retain all three syllables, but medicine “medication, drug” emerges as medsin.

Courtly manners

Courtly manners

Several centuries ago, reformers of English spelling, who also taught what they believed was the correct — and the only correct — pronunciation (those people are known as othoepists; stress on the second syllable), resented the loss of middle vowels. The variant medsin brought forth such a statement: “That so gross a vulgarism should gain ground in our language, is an imputation on our national taste” (John Walker, 1732-1807). Many people believed and still believe that refinement presupposes a perfect match between a word’s written image and its phonetic shape: if a letter is written, it allegedly should be pronounced (thus, often is preferable to of’n). As to vulgarisms, fortunately or unfortunately, wilderness always conquers culture. In linguistics this process is called the history of language and keeps people like me employed.

Courtesy shared the fate of medicine, but with graver consequences, similar to those we observe in the shortening of ordinary. Deprived of the middle syllable, courtesy turned into a new word, namely curtsey ~ curtsy (older, and still in dialects, even curchy ~ curchie; compare the change of Portsmouth to Porchmouth, hardly by folk etymology, for port + mouth makes sense, but what is porch + mouth?). Courtesy would have become courtezy if it had stuck to its etymon, but it probably fell under the sway of jealousy, fantasy, heresy, and the like and entered the Standard with a voiceless consonant. Unlike its parent (courtesy), the first vowel of curtsy does not alternate with -or-. After much meandering we may now return to the main question of this post: How did the first syllable of courteous acquire a vowel different from that of court?

As mentioned above, the sources I consulted provide no answer, and in search of help I decided to see what happened to curtain. Few interesting details transpired. Old French cortine (from Latin cortina) yielded Middle Engl. cortine and curtine. Obviously, the modern form curtain goes back to curtine. The eighteenth-century adjective curt is Latin curtus without the ending -us. Curtail added nothing to what I knew. So I am left with my question: Why do courtesy and courteous have the vowel of curt rather than of court?

Here is what I think. Old French -ur- was expected to become -or-. But for a long time French borrowings containing more than one syllable were stressed on the end, and perhaps ur, with its long u in unstressed syllables, was shortened and did not become or. Later the groups ur, er, and ir merged in the English vowel we today have in bur(r), her, and sir. If my hypothesis is correct, the pronunciation courteous and courtesy as curteous and curtesy is historically justified, while the competing variants, hardly ever heard today, had no basis in the old language and appeared because people wanted to align the derivatives with the word court, so in a way as the product of what is called hypercorrection. I would be most pleased to hear the verdict of specialists in the interaction of Old French and Middle English. If my explanation is correct, they will probably call it trivial. I too find it trivial but wonder why no book on the history of English and no English etymological dictionary mentions it. Too obvious? Not worthy of discussion? Hardly so. And if I am wrong, I’ll be happy to learn the truth.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: “Le Menuet” oil on Canvas by Nicolas Lancret. CC-BY-NC-ND via WikiGallery.

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2 Responses to “How courteous are you at court?”
  1. John Cowan says:

    To mathematicians too, “correct” and “trivial” mean the same thing. If there’s a proof, the theorem is trivial. :-)

  2. Masha Bell says:

    Trivial or not, I like your explanation.
    Most English words of French origin have not retained their French pronunciation or spelling (battle, beef, button). The more recently imported ones have retained their French spellings and cause difficulties for children learning to read write, because they create inconsistencies like ‘bubble – double, rubble – trouble’. Retaining the old French ‘cur’ in ‘curteous’ and ‘curtesy’ would clearly have been better.

    Getting rid of letters which are now clearly surplus to requirements would help to make English spelling a little more sensible than it is now: http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/regular-and-unpredictable-spellings-in.html
    It is in dire need of some improvement.

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