The other day, I was reading a history of the Norman and Angevin kings, and came across the word kirk in an ecclesiastical context, which I had to look up, having no clue of its meaning. The Online Etymology Dictionary gave me this:

kirk c.1200, northern England and Scottish dialectal form of church, from O.N. kirkja "church," from O.E. cirice (see church).

I took its advice, and looked up church:

church O.E. cirice "church, public place of worship, Christians collectively," from W.Gmc. *kirika (cf. O.S. kirika, O.N. kirkja, O.Fris. zerke, M.Du. kerke, O.H.G. kirihha, Ger. Kirche), from Gk. kyriake (oikia), kyriakon doma "Lord's (house)," from kyrios "ruler, lord," from PIE base *keue- "to swell" ("swollen," hence "strong, powerful"). Phonetic spelling from c.1200, established by 16c.

One notes that both words, kirk and church, have the same etymological root in the Old English, cirice. But the Scots version, and its etymological predecessors, would all seem to be pronounced with a hard 'k'; the softening of the Middle English church seems to be a unique, derived, synapomorphy of the word tree.

So my questions are: What is this phenomenon called, exactly? Second, was it a general characteristic of the evolution of Old English to Middle English, this softening of hard consonants?


1. What is this phenomenon called, exactly?

The phonological phenomenon by which /k/ (as in kirk) is changed in /tʃ/ (as in "church") is termed Palatalisation.

It applies to many languages (Romance, Slavic, Germanic...) and it is quite easy to understand where it takes its name from:

  • When you pronounce "kirk", your tongue does not touch your palate.
  • When you say "church" instead, you can feel it touches it in the front area (near the upper front teeth - this is called the alveolar ridge).

For instance, in French a "cat" (from Latin cattus) with a plain /k/ will become a "chat" with just a /ʃ/ (not to confuse with an English chat as in "chat room" which is noted /tʃ/).

As for Old English, I've consulted the "Phonology and Morphology" article by Richard Hogg in the first volume of the authoritative Cambridge History of the English Language which is the volume dedicated to Old English.

It has a very detailed study of the phenomenon (page 106 to 108) of which I must confess I still have to work out many of the particulars.

2. Was it a general characteristic of the evolution of Old English to Middle English, this softening of hard consonants?

I also found a chart of the rules of palatalisation in Old English from which the following rules are extracted.

  1. The sound /k/ in Common Germanic before a consonant or back vowel was preserved unchanged in Old English. Examples:

    • cyning ("king")
    • claene ("clean")
    • corn ("corn")
  2. Germanic /k/ next to a front vowel was palatalised to /tʃ/ :

    • cirice ("church") (G: Kirche)
    • cild ("child") (G: Kind)
  3. Germanic /sk/ was palatalised to /ʃ/ in all situations:

    • fisc ("fish")
    • scield ("shield")
    • wascan ("wash") No need to say that the further palatalisation of skirt itself is impossible because it is blocked by the existence of shirt.
  4. Germanic /g/ before consonants and back vowels was preserved in Old English:

    • god ("god")
    • gōd ("good")
  5. Germanic /g/ in medial or final position was palatalised to /dʒ/:

    • brycg ("bridge")
  6. Germanic /g/ was palatalized to the semivowel /j/ before or between front vowels:

    • gear ("year")
    • geoguþ ("youth")

3. Cognates from later loans

One anecdotal twist of the story is the shirt vs skirt contrast. They both come from Proto Germanic *skurtijon but whereas the former (shirt) is a noun of the original Old English Saxon vocabulary, the latter version (skirt) is its Old Norse cousin and is only recorded in Middle English once the integration of Old Norse loanwords was in full swing.

As you can see from this example, the OE version had already undergone palatalisation whereas its ON cognate had not - simply because at the time Scandinavian languages had not gone through palatalisation.

  • 2
    Note: in medial and final position, only long/double, palatalized "cg" developed to /dʒ/. "Short" or "single" palatalized g could also occur in medial and final position, and it became /j/ (which usually coalesced with the preceding vowel, as in "day," from Old English dæg). Non-palatalized "g" could also occur in medial and final position; when long, it was preserved as "g" (as in "frog" from Old English frogga / frocga) and when short, it developed to w (as in "fowl" from Old English fugol), which was vocalized to ow after a consonant (as in "follow" from Old English folgian). – herisson Mar 29 '16 at 2:15

I cannot provide a direct answer to your question, but I know a little bit about Old English.

The OE word is indeed "cirice". In OE the "c" was pronounced as a "tch" (as in MnE "church") in some cases and as a "k" in others. Generally this was the case before "i" and "e" ("cing" being an obvious exception).

If I recall correctly, this rule wasn't universal; so some dialects (possibly Northumbrian, too) may have pronounced it with a hard "k" in all places.

Furthermore, in German, which shares a common ancestor with Old English, the word is "Kirche". The "ch" is pronounced as the "ich" sound (not the one in Scottish "loch") and was sometimes used word-initially in old forms of German. In these word-initial positions, it was eventually replaced by "k" (leading to a frequent (mis)pronunciation of "China" as "KEE-nah" rather than "CHEE-nah").

So in other words, the phenomenon you're describing probably wasn't caused by a language change at a later time but was present in Old English dialects already. Not knowing more about OE dialects, I would assume that Northumbrian might have lacked the "ch" allomorph for "k" altogether.

  • The German aspect is immediately what leapt to my mind. One can imagine the "ch" making something resembling a "k" sound, but it eventually becoming pronounced with the "ch" sound we're more familiar with. – Ben Hocking May 12 '11 at 0:58

Well, considering that the north of England and parts of Scotland were part of the Danelaw, where the Vikings ruled and spoke a version of Old Norse, you should just check the etymology you provide in your Etymonline citation, which gives kirkja as the Old Norse derivation of the term.

John McWhorter, in his magnificent Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue notes that "English gets simpler first in the north — where Scandinavians were densely settled." He goes on at length about the simplification, but one may surmise that the more likely explanation is that this is not a simplification so much as a borrowing, a variant left over from those times. In England generally, the movement was often from the "k" sound to the "ch" sound: town names that end in "chester" for example derived from the Latin castra (or castrum) meaning a military camp. So Venta Belgarum (meaning capital of the Celtic tribe known as Belgares) became Venta Castra once conquered and then softened to Wintanceaster (the "c" pronounced as a "ch") and finally to the place we recognize as Winchester.

  • But in the North, we find "Tadcaster" and "Lancaster". – Colin Fine May 21 '11 at 0:45

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