Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why is Caesar pronounced SEE-see?

Maybe it's never occurred to you, or maybe it's not the kind of thing that worries you, but the pronunciation of the name "Caesar" has been bugging me for a while now. It started after passing a pizza restaurant quaintly named Ceasar's Pizza. Which, when you think about it, wrongly spelled as it is, actually makes a lot more sense...
So, a little research confirms my original feeling that, in Gaius Julius Caesar's day, his name would indeed have been pronounced KYE-sahr, not dissimilar to the German word kaiser, which it have gave rise to. By the same token, Cicero would have been pronounced more like KEE-kair-o, strange as that sounds to us. The change in pronunciation occurred as a result of the kind of pronunciation shifts most languages go through over their history. Even in Caesar's time, Latin was undergoing some pronunciation shifts.
Except that it's not quite that simple (of course it's not!) Part of the problem stems from the fact that ancient Roman pronunciation wasn't accurately reconstructed until about 1900. And, yes, we do have a good idea of the ancient pronunciation, partly because it was specifically designed as a phonetic language, partly because we have Roman teaching materials, and partly because we can look at pronunciations in other Romance languages, as well as transcriptions of Latin into other alphabets like Greek and Sanskrit. Before that time, scholars tended to interpret (guess) Latin pronunciations through the lenses of their own languages.
So, we end up with four main versions of Latin pronunciation:
  • Reconstructed Ancient Roman, in which Caesar would have been pronounced KYE-sahr;
  • Southern Continental or "Church Latin", as used in Italy: CHAY-sahr;
  • Northern Continental, recommended for use in scientific circles: TSAY-sahr; and the
  • "English Method", which, of course, is a law into itself: SEE-zer.
Even after my research, I am still not entirely sure why the English Method plumped for SEE-zer, except to say that it probably changed with the Frenchification of English after the Norman Conquest. But I am long past expecting to find logical justifications for English spelling and pronunciation.

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