Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Of Castles and Chateaus

CastlePeggy Nielsen wrote today: “As I walked this morning through a lovely park outside the local Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), the word campus came to mind. I’m thinking the word is from Latin, given the -us ending and I’ll bet it originally had something to do with soldiers. Now we use the word to mean the area where a college or university is situated and I think we have broadened it to mean any large area outside a central building or collection of buildings.”

“And then I am reminded of Champs Elysees, meaning, of course, Elysian Fields. Here “champs” also = “field.” Am I on the right track and is campus related to champs?”

Well, “related to” hardly describes it: champs IS campus 2000 years later. French, of course, is Latin as it developed over the centuries in France (Italian is Latin as it developed as Rome became Italy). So it is the same word.

An oddity which (last I heard) no one understands is the shift of C (pronounced [k]) to CH before A in French. This process is called palatalization because the point of pronunciation moves from back of the mouth [k] on the soft palate to the hard palate [ch]. Palatalization is common before I and E (as in Italian focaccia), vowels pronounced with the tongue in the front of the mouth. However, in French it seems to have occured before the back vowel [a]:

  • chateau from castellum “castle, fortress”,
  • champs from campus “field”,
  • chapeau “hat” from cappellum “cap”

Cappellum is the diminutive of capa from which we get cape. It originally meant a hooded cape and so the diminutive would have meant “a short cape” which would have left just the hood. 

One final note of interest. Latin castellum “fortress” is also a diminutive of castrum “camp, fortified place”. The root here is the same as that of castrare “to castrate” (Ugh!). However, the original root seems to have meant “to cut”, which means that the original camps were clearings, perhaps with the resultant logs used as fortification.

In any event, Latin also has an adjective castus “chaste” which shares the same root. The connection witih “cut” here is murky to say the least but given the original meaning was “abstaining from sexaual activity”, I shudder thinking about it.

So let me just wrap up today’s jottings by pointing out that the change from castus to chaste is yet another example of C becomeing CH before A in French since French is where English got this word.

2 Responses to “Of Castles and Chateaus”

  1. Slava Says:

    This is also linked to caste, as in social status and the like. I figure it’s along the lines of bits of society “cut” off from the rest.

  2. Tim Says:

    I wonder if this palatization is a result of the structure of the words. The words that had initial-c transformed to ch seem to be words that have closing consonants following the -a-, i.e. b, p, m, n, s, st… With an r or an l you could leave the mouth open following the a, so the c would be more likely to be formed ‘normally’ without the assimilation effect.


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