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I remember when I first came across this word, I thought it was pronounced /'sɜr-dʒint/ (SER-jeent). Now I am curious as to why the first syllable is pronounced /sar/ rather than /sɜr/. I looked at the etymology, and found that the word has always had either sir or ser at the beginning, never sar. To top that off, sergeant comes from the Old French sergent, from Latin servientem meaning serving, the same root word that we get the word servant from. To my knowledge, servant has never been pronounced /'sar-vənt/. Why and since when has sergeant been pronounced sargent?

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Why do the British pronounce lieutenant "leftenant"? Or clerk "clark"? –  Robusto Jan 23 '12 at 1:45
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@Robusto: I don't know. –  Daniel Jan 23 '12 at 1:48
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@Danielδ - they're from the French. The British are known for both their intricate knowledge of other languages and the efforts they are prepared to go to in order to respect and honour their French neighbours. –  mgb Jan 23 '12 at 1:55
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Clerk pronounced "clark", Berkeley pronounced "Barklee", derby pronounced "darbee" and sergeant pronounced "sarjent" all seem to be part of the same sound shift. I don't know the cause of it, and I don't know why sergeant is the only one pronounced this way in the U.S. –  Peter Shor Jan 23 '12 at 1:59
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@rajah9 english.stackexchange.com/questions/9829/… –  Mahnax Jan 23 '12 at 2:26
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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Per the Naval Historical Center:

The English borrowed the word "sergeant" from the French in about the Thirteenth Century. They spelled it several different ways and pronounced it both as SARgent and SERgeant. The latter was closer to the French pronunciation. The SARgeant pronunciation became the most popular, however, so that when the Nineteenth Century dictionary writers agreed that the word should be spelled "sergeant" they could not change the popular pronunciation. Thus, we say SARgeant while the French and others say SERgeant.

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See person and parson, perhaps from different dialects of early French, but think of how Dickens represented -er- in the speech of some of his characters and how some upper class English speakers might refer to the squire as the squaar, hence the squarson, being both squire and parson. –  Michael May 22 '13 at 16:06
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Same reason ... that colonel is "kernel"

Old words that were once pronounced in a different way, that evolved into a different argot use, but kept their archaic spelling.

English seems chock-full of hundreds of these crumpets.

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Digraph <er> represented /ɜːr/, which became opener /ɑː(r)/. As the sound shifted, so the spelling shifted to <ar> in many words. Folks have kept the old spelling esp in the case of their names and place names; so, you we have a mismatch between the spelling and the expected sound. In other cases, we have two spelling versions: Derby vs Darby; Clerk vs Clarke; Hervey vs Harvey; merchant vs Marchant; farmer vs Fermor; etc. Most of this is from Jack Windsor Lewis's Derby and Similar Words. This mismatch (sergeant vs sar-) is not unique to sergeant. You can find more examples in that JWL's post. Check his Grapho-Phonemic mis-cordinations.

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Can you explain some of those things right here? The link is great, but it'd be nice to have an idea in case the link goes away. –  Mitch May 24 '13 at 22:49
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One sees a number of references to incorrect or uneducated pronunciation as being the cause for Derby, clerk, sergeant etc. being pronounced darbi, klark, sarjant (pity IPA font is not available here). Please note that the written form of a language is often not representative of the way it was pronounced or even of its syntax. For example, verbs in the British Isles have been conjugated by using the auxiliary verb to do or its British equivalent since before Roman occupation. Yet, it only started being acknowledged in written English relatively recently (no trace of it in Old English, but conjugating with an equivalent of to do is systematic in all Celtic tongues which predate Old English). Similarly, if clerk and sergeant are pronounced klark or sarjant it is precisely because they were pronounced in that manner in French when they were borrowed from that language. The same goes for farm spelled ferme in French. The English pronunciation (retained in the spelling) demonstrates unequivocally that it was pronounced farm in French at the time it was borrowed.I find no trace of evidence of ER being pronounced AR in Latin or Italian dialects. However, my great-grandmother from the Berry area 150kms south of Paris, France, would pronounce ferme something like féarm in her dialect. In my other mother tongue, it being Cornouaille Breton (which came to Brittany from the British Isles between 150AD and 500AD)I know of one case in which ER is pronounced AR: in the word serret (meaning closed, a French borrowing) which we pronounce sarr't. There are, however, plenty of examples of OR pronounced WAR as in dorn (hand), pronounced dwarn or korn (corner) pronounced kwarn. There is likely to be a phonological process at play here between vowels and rhotic R (which I am unable to explain). None of it has to do with mispronunciation. These pronunciations are rather testimonies of older forms of the languages at stake and quite probably find their origins in Celtic phonology. In other words darbi is the correct form and dERbi is an approximate transcription.

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Just a note: IPA is available. You can use something like ipa.typeit.org to prepare it and paste it in. –  Andrew Leach Oct 7 '13 at 11:17
    
1. When these words were borrowed from (Old) French, they were NOT pronounced with an /a/ sound. 2. Periphrastic constructions with a ‘to do’ auxiliary is NOT systematic in all Celtic tongues. It is found only in the Brythonic languages, and not even systematically there in the oldest layers of the languages. 3. No Celtic language had a system of writing before the Roman conquest of Britain, so we do not really know how the British languages were before that time at all. 4. This question, apart from being full of inaccuracies, does not answer the question at all. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 7 '13 at 11:25
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