Pronunciation of ‘Antarctica’

February 10, 2011

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.

15 Responses to “Pronunciation of ‘Antarctica’”

  1. As you’re obviously interested in etymology, you may want to check out, which deals with English and Spanish (even if you haven’t studied Spanish, the English explanations often stand on their own).

  2. This is very persuasive. I would certainly never have stooped to pronounce “arctogaeal” as “artogaeal,” and have never seriously entertained “antartica,” though I have wondered if I was correct.

  3. Adam Hincks Says:

    My dear Craig, it is this sort of logic that has induced our friends south of the border to adopt rigidly classical spellings that abandon the flavour (or as they would write, flavor) of the history of our words, and all the delightful, meandering routes they have coursed before arriving on our nibs and lips.

    Would you advocate that we pronounce the word ‘salvation’ as /sæl’weɪʃən/ because Cicero pronounced the letter ‘v’ as a voiced labio-velar approximant? (Although I confess that if you pronounced it that way out of affection for Sam Weller I would heartily approve.)

  4. Matthew Says:

    I hate to throw a spanner in the works, but German is the fountainhead of our language, not Latin nor Greek. The Latin influence comes from the influence of the French-speaking monarchy after the Norman invasion. The influence caused the essentially foreign Old English (based on Anglo-Saxon; have you ever tried reading Beowulf in the original?) to morph into the more understandable Middle English of Chaucer, which you conveniently quoted. 🙂

  5. cburrell Says:

    Dear Adam, if there is no objection to a language meandering, then there can be no objection when it meanders from a silent ‘c’ to a pronounced ‘c’, and the point is moot.

    Second, I appealed to the authority of the Greeks, not the Romans. I don’t care a Roman fig for the Romans and their labio-velar approximants. (I will, however, confess an affectionate regard for Sam Weller.)

    Third, what about the French?

  6. cburrell Says:

    Matthew, you are right, of course. I should have said “fountainhead of jargon”. Certainly “Antarctica” is not a Germanic word.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    I have a simpler explanation: If we pronounce the first “c” in Arctic, why not pronounce it in Antarctic?

  8. cburrell Says:

    I believe the same argument would apply to both words. That is, advocates of ‘antartic’ are also advocates of ‘artic’. They’re wrong, but at least they’re consistent.

  9. Kathleen Toshack Says:

    The pronunciation should be :
    aent/ak/tIc with stress on the second syllable
    and not
    For the layperson :Ant Arctic not An Tarctic
    Kathleen Toshack August 30, 2012

    • An interesting debate. For a new perspective, listen to episodes of Stargate SG1 which refers on numerous occasions to an antarctic base, or, as the cast members pronounce it in earlier episodes, “anartic” and “anartica”. How much shorter can it be? Don’t get me started on vunrable…

  10. Anne Wichelns Says:

    Thanks so much. My husband and I were just discussing this, he on the hard c side, I on the opposite because I had teachers who stressed that point, even though the spelling denied it.

    Your blog was very clarifying as to how the situation developed. Anne

  11. Janet Says:

    This will be my favorite thing I read today. I’m not sure how I missed it, except that I have been busy with the study of ornithology.

    I was definitely taught the c-less pronunciation in school, but in recent years, I added it back, thus striking a blow and the hyper-obedience of my childhood.


  12. morrie2 Says:

    It amazes me how many people who have been to the place more than once don’t pronounce the c. I have wondered if it was an ‘in’ thing for those people or if there is some proportion of the population who simply cannot hear the difference.

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