There is some controversy abroad in the world about the correct way to pronounce ‘Antarctica’. The debate turns on whether the first ‘c’ should be silent or not. In this post I will settle this terrible row once and for all.
I begin by observing that, in the absence of compelling contrary evidence, it seems evident that the ‘c’ should be pronounced (and as a hard ‘c’): thus, /ænˈtɑːktɪkə/. All of the other letters in the word are pronounced, and it would be capricious in the extreme — again, in the absence of compelling contrary evidence — to neglect that one letter, which is otherwise so conspicuously normal.
Advocates of the silent ‘c’ argue, however, that they are in possession of just such compelling contrary evidence. They point, for instance, to Chaucer’s Astrolabe in which he wrote, “Than is the pol antartik by-nethe the Orisonte”, or to John Mandeville’s famous Travels in which we find it written that “In lybye men seen first the sterre Antartyk”. Even as late as 1777, after Captain Cook sailed the southern seas, we find in William Robertson’s The History of America the speculation that “It is probable that an open sea stretches to the Antartic pole”. In this way they mount a stirring defence of /ænˈtɑːtɪkə/.
To resolve this vexing dispute, let us turn to the peaceable science of etymology.
Our modern word ‘Antarctica’ is derived from the Middle English antartyk, sure enough, which had been previously borrowed from the Old French antartique, which in turn had been received from the Latin antarticus. So far, so good, for the silent school.
But — and here is the crucial point — the Latin was derived from the Greek, and the Greek is ἀνταρκτικός. Notice the very pronounced κ in the contested location. This, I remind you, at the fountainhead of our language, where the word was first introduced. The inescapable conclusion is that all else — the whole history from the slovenly Romans on down — was, it appears, nothing but a great wallowing in abominable linguistic perversion.
Notice also that ἀνταρκτικός is derived from the conjuction of ἀντί and ἄρκτος, meaning ‘against the Bear’ — a reference, of course, to that part of the sky opposite the constellation of the Great Bear (the Big Dipper, for those whose astrology is rusty). Thus by implication defenders of a silent ‘c’ are also committing themselves to silencing the ‘c’ in Arcturus, in Ursus arctos, in arctoid, in arcticize, and in arctogaeal, among other related words. If applied consistently, their position will therefore render them scarcely intelligible.
As one final piece of evidence let us observe that even the French, whose antartique was one of the proximate authorities supporting the abstemiousness of the silent school — even the French, I say, whose meticulous attention to linguistic purity is an admirable counterweight to their other qualities — even they have, in these latter days, amended their pronunciation to antarctique, bringing them into harmony with the Greek exemplar.
My thanks to Adam Hincks for suggesting the topic of this post.