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A little look through an etymology dictionary shows that the root is Latin gigas with adjective form gigant. So in its derivation to English, why did the second "g" get retained in gigantic but was dropped from giant?

I have an inkling that the word giant may have travelled through French on its way to English, where it may have been pronounced "gee-yant" or "jee-yant" with a change to the second "g" that was then dropped when taken into English. However, the "g" is retained as a hard "g" in gigantic.

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A correction: the root of the word is Greek, not Latin. It was adopted by the Romans, like the rest of the Greek mythology. When it passed to Old French it was probably changed from "gigas" to "geant". It was only the adjective that kept the original "g" in French, too. –  Irene Dec 23 '11 at 16:13
@Irene: Any references? –  Kris Dec 24 '11 at 6:52
@Kris: Yes. "etymonline.com" for the etymology of the word and "wordreference.com" (English-French dictionary). Sorry for not giving you direct links, but I haven't found out how to do that yet. –  Irene Dec 24 '11 at 8:11
@Irene: Thanks all the same, the domain name references are fine enough. –  Kris Dec 24 '11 at 8:18

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The word gigantic comes to English relatively recently. Giant, as you probably know if you've investigated the etymology, appears in Middle English by way of Old French geant [NOAD]. Gigantic, on the other hand, appears first in Modern English in the 16th or 17th century, three or four hundred years later. The reference at that time was probably to the original Latin (via Greek) gigas.

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What I'm taking from this is, the two words, though similar, took seperate routes from Latin to English. Is this correct? –  cobaltduck Dec 23 '11 at 15:28
@Wade. Yes. There are many other cases with odder results, such as shirt and skirt from the same Germanic root meaning short. –  Henry Dec 23 '11 at 18:15
Yes, that's a good one. Shirt is the original AS word, which got palatalized before the Norse invasions; skirt is the Norse version, which never got palatalized because it was in Norway instead of England. –  John Lawler Dec 23 '11 at 19:08
@JohnLawler: Actually, the original AS (OE) word was scyrte. The sc would have been pronounced the way we pronounce sh today. –  Robusto Dec 25 '11 at 15:45
Sorry, should've been clearer. "Shirt is the ModE cognate of the original AS word". And scyrte would at one point -- pre- palatalization -- have been pronounced /skirte/ or /skürte/. –  John Lawler Dec 25 '11 at 18:41

One of those occasionally (but never perfectly) useful pronunciation rules for English spellings (which was not designed -- to be fair -- to represent Modern English pronunciation, but rather Middle English, quite a different-sounding language) is that C or G before I or E often get pronounced /s/ or /ʃ/ or /tʃ/ (for C), and /ʒ/ or /dʒ/ (for G).

This is a result of several historic bouts of Palatalization in both English and the Romance languages (notably French, which supplied loads of English words, and Italian, which supplied Latin words in the form of Church Latin, quite a different-sounding language from Classical Latin).

As the Wikipedia article points out, sounds around the palatal region (alveolars like /t/, /d/, and /s/, and velars like /k/ and /ɡ/), tend to "migrate" toward the palatal region in anticipation whenever the tongue moves toward that region, which is where high front vowels (like /i/ and /e/) are produced (by the tongue, that is; other organs are also involved). It's a natural reflex, and is unavoidable at normal speech speeds. Everybody does it. So migration is more or less constant, though at different rates.

Of course, I and E are no longer pronounced /i/ and /e/ in Modern English, but the palatalization they wrought while they were both high front vowels lives after them.

That's all, really. Welcome to the wonderful world of English orthography. There's all these fossils lying around, which is fascinating for us paleontologists, but frustrating for tourists, who keep tripping over them.

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I don't get it. What does that say about 'giant' and 'gigantic' in particular? Are you saying there was a sound change in the first 'g's -after- they were borrowed from French (for 'giant') or created out of Latin (for 'gigantic')? –  Mitch Dec 23 '11 at 19:30
I'm saying that the G in giant and the first G in gigantic come before I, and are therefore pronounced like J, but the second G in gigantic isn't because it comes before A, and not before I or E. And I'm saying the reason for this is that English sounds changed, but English didn't change its spelling. –  John Lawler Dec 23 '11 at 19:53
@JohnLawler True enough but I don't think this is what the question is asking. The question is asking why we have the word "giant" instead of "gigant", but "gigantic" instead of "giantic". –  augurar Oct 28 at 20:54
And the answer is that those were the wordforms that were borrowed from Greek and other languages. If you would like an explanation of why precisely those wordforms were borrowed and not others, you may apply for a grant to build a time machine and conduct a sociolinguistic survey over a millennium. –  John Lawler Nov 15 at 1:58

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