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USAGE: The strange case of "cell"

From:John Cowan <cowan@...>
Date:Wednesday, October 31, 2001, 12:13
Borrowing is a funny thing.

Old English borrowed "cell" from Latin CELLA, in the sense of a small
room (e.g. a monk's cell).  Modern English, too, has the word "cell"
in the same sense; the more frequent sense "least unit of an organism"
is derived from it.  But ModE "cell" cannot be the descendant of OE

OE "c" was originally always /k/, but underwent palatalization before
front vowels to /tS/.  This happened within the OE period itself,
though not reflected in the spelling, and can be seen with the
analogous OE borrowing "cist" < Latin CISTA, which appears in
ModE as "chest".  So if OE "cell" had survived into ModE, it
would be spelled "chell" and pronounced accordingly:  /tSEl/.

In French, of course, original Latin /k/ was similarly palatalized,
probably /k/ > /tS/ > /ts/ > /s/, the position today.  Since
English "cell" is /sEl/, it must be a French borrowing that
replaced the inherited form /tSel/.

"Every word has its own story."

John Cowan     
Please leave your values        |       Check your assumptions.  In fact,
   at the front desk.           |          check your assumptions at the door.
     --sign in Paris hotel      |            --Miles Vorkosigan


Dan Jones <dan@...>