The strange case of the word "cell"

Linguistic borrowing is a funny thing.

Old English borrowed "cell" from Latin CELLA, in the sense of a small room (e.g. a monk's cell). Modern English, too, has the word "cell" in the same sense; the more frequent sense "smallest unit of an organism" is derived from it. But Modern English "cell" cannot be the descendant of Old English "cell".

Old English "c" originally always represented the sound [k], but underwent palatalization before the front vowels "i" and "e" to [tʃ], the sound written "ch" in Modern English. This happened within the Old English period itself, though not reflected in the spelling until much later. For example, the analogous Old English borrowing "cist" < Latin CISTA appears in Modern English as "chest". So if "cell" had survived into Modern English, it would be spelled "chell" and pronounced accordingly: [tʃɛl].

In French, of course, original Latin [k] was similarly palatalized, but to [s], which accounts for most of the words written with "c" and pronounced [s] in English today. Since English "cell" is indeed pronounced [sɛl], it must be a French borrowing that replaced the inherited form [tʃɛl].

"Every word has its own story."


david said...

Given the fact that 'cell' was a specialized ecclesiastic word in Anglo-Saxon times, and that French was making inroads in the church even before the Conquest, I think that it's highly likely that you're right and 'cell' reentered English from French. It was probably an inkhorn term in A-S times (though Alcuin's "O mea cella" is my favourite medieval Latin poem). I have to get my OED out of storage so that I can check these things.

That said, you've oversimplified the case of /k/ palatization in Anglo-Saxon times. In the Danelaw (mainly the East Midlands and the North), /k/ palatization was either prevented or reversed in many cases, possibly due to influence from Scandinavian settlers (or perhaps because the process was never as strong as in the South and West)-- that's how we ended up with doublets in English like 'church'/'kirk', 'ditch'/'dike', and 'shirt'/'skirt'. In that case, we would have expected the word to end up in modern English as 'kell', though, rather than 'cell'.

John Cowan said...

Quite right; see my earlier article on doublets.

I was quite surprised to find on a trip to Ireland that ditch is still used there in the sense of 'dyke'; people sit on, rather than in, the ditch.