A deserted desert

ENG 2016Blog post written by Michael Bulley based on an article in the journal English Today 

Why that title? Well, desert is one of those spellings, like defect, where a change of stress-pattern alters the meaning, the quality of one of the vowels and the grammatical category. Also, desert, the noun, has the same etymological origin as desert, the verb, though we do not nowadays think of a desert as a place people have deserted. Those two words also belong to a smallish group in English that begin with the prefix <de-> followed by <s> and a vowel. That group is the topic of my article.

Leaving out rare words and obvious derivations, the list I came up with is this:

desalinate, desaturate, desecrate, desegregate, deselect, desensitise, desert, deserve, desiccate, design, designate, desire, desist, desolate, desuetude, desultory

There are several ways you can group them. The one I fixed on was the pronunciation of the prefix. There are three possibilities: [dɪ], as in deserve, [di], as in deselect, and [dɛ], as in designate. Having established those three groups, I then look at what the similarities and differences are within and across them according to three other criteria. These are:

1) The pronunciation of the <s>, whether unvoiced, as in desecrate, or voiced as in designate.

2) The sense of the prefix. Sometimes it implies separation or privation, as in desalinate, and sometimes not. The <de-> of desiccate, for example, just seems to reinforce the sense of the root, as the word does not mean to remove dryness.

3) The independence or not of the root. In deselect, it is independent. In desist, it is not. In design, it is and it isn’t. For, although sign exists by itself, there is a change of sense from that in the compound and the <s> is unvoiced, whereas in the compound it is voiced.

What prompted me to think of this topic? It was an oddity of French orthography, where the prefix <dé->, added to a root beginning <s> plus vowel, becomes <des->, the double <s> ensuring an unvoiced pronunciation. So, French has dessiccation, with a double <s>, whereas English has desiccation, with only one.

I finish the article with dessert. That’s another French word with the precautionary, but slightly illogical, double <s>. We anglophones have to spell it that way, because it comes directly from French, but we cock a snook. For how do we pronounce that double <s>? As a  /z/!

Read the full article ‘A deserted desert, Various ways of looking at a small group of words

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