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Why We Pronounce 'Celtic' Music And Boston 'Celtics' Differently

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The Boston Celtics mascot waves a flag before an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards in Boston, Monday, Dec. 25, 2017.
Michael Dwyer/AP
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It’s that time of the year when basketball takes center stage. The NCAA Final Four is set, and the NBA is in the final push toward the playoffs. It's the perfect time to take on this question from Ken Westhassel, a loyal listener from Medford, Massachusetts.

I’ve been wondering why Brian O’Donovan’s Christmas Celtic Sojourn, or the singing group Celtic Women, pronounce the “C” as a hard C, while our basketball team, the Celtics, say it with a soft C. Why is this, and which is correct?

For years, English speakers pronounced the word Celtic with a soft "C" in all contexts. It’s how people in the United Kingdom said the word in the late 19th century when the famed Glasgow soccer team, Celtic [soft 'C'], was formed. It's also how people around here said it in 1947, when our now beloved basketball team debuted. This makes all the sense in the world, said linguist, author and educator James Harbeck.

"The word Celtics [with a soft 'C'] reflected the way that English approaches the letter 'C' before the letter 'E,'" he said. 

In English, when the letter "C" is followed by an "E," it’s pretty much always said like an “S": Think "cement," "cellphone," "race" and "dance." As for why that is, we have to go back — way back, to the time of gladiators, chariot races and the famed Roman orator Cicero, — or should I say, “Kikero"? 

"Classical Latin had 'C' always as 'kuh,'" said Harbeck. "So, if you saw classical Latin and it had the words that we would recognize, 'et cetera,' they would say 'et ketera.'”

Latin would, of course, form the basis for numerous other languages — like Italian, French and Spanish — known today as the Romance languages. Along the way, says Harbeck, the hard “C” began to undergo a transformation. It’s actually pretty hard on the mouth to go from that “kuh” sound immediately into a vowel like an "E" or an "I," and so, the "C" began to slowly soften.

"Over time, sounds at the back of the mouth, like 'kuh,' will assimilate forward sometimes when you have a vowel after them at the front of the mouth," said Harbeck. "It tries to be a stop — 'kuh' — but then it says, ah, frick it. And it becomes 'chuh.'"

This is exactly what happened as Latin became Italian. The word for "celebrate" in Italian, "cellebrare," starts with a “ce” but is pronounced CHEH-leh-bra-reh. And perhaps you’ve enjoyed a nice after-dinner limoncello (pronounced lee-mon-CHEH-loh) in the North End. French language takes it one step further. 

"In French, it moved on and the 'chuh' became 'suh,'" said Harbeck.

This is even easier for the mouth. Think "c’est la vie" (pronounced SAY-lah-vee) or the painter, Paul Cezanne (pronounced SEH-zahn). Both start with “ce" and are pronounced with a full-on soft "C" sound. And it’s the French that brought this particular linguistic quirk to the English language.  

"One might remember that the French ran England for a little while," said Harbeck. "They had this little fight in 1066 [when] William the Conqueror came over." 

Not only did he invade and take over England, but for a while, he made French the official language of the land. This chapter of English history would permanently alter the still-developing English language that was being spoken there in numerous ways, including the adoption of a soft "C" before the letter "E."

But that French influence did not extend to the various other languages spoken around the British Isles, in places like Scotland, Ireland and Wales — languages of the Celts.

"In Irish and Scottish and Welch and so forth, the letter 'C' is always “kuh” and Celtic is 'Celtic' [with a hard 'C']," said Harbeck.

The same goes for Classical Latin. So, while the rules of the English language suggest “Celtic” should be said with a soft 'C' — and for a long time, that was how English speakers said it — that has changed since the mid-20th century.

"We have gotten to a state of consciousness in English now where we try to pronounce words and names from other languages the way that they would have us pronounce them," said Harbeck. 

But sports is a realm notorious for holding fast to traditions. And so, while we’ve adjusted our pronunciation of the word "Celtic" when talking about music, or language or culture, it should be no surprise that the two places the legacy of Celtic with a soft "C" live on is with a soccer team in Scotland and a basketball team here in the U.S.

So, in short, "we moved from 'kuh' through 'chuh' to 'suh' to get Celtic [with a soft 'C']," said Harbeck. "But then, the Celts [with a hard 'C'] said, 'Hey, hey, hey, we never did that.' Yo, yo, yo! So there you go. That is why [it is pronounced] the Celtics [with a soft 'C'] but Celtic music [with a hard 'C']."

Our thanks to Medford’s Ken Westhassel for his question that led to this story. What’s yours? Email us at CuriosityDesk@wgbh.org and let us know what has been rousing your curiosity lately. Who knows, we might just look into it for you. 

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