Pope, according to Etymonline is from:

  • Old English papa (9c.), from Church Latin papa "bishop, pope" (in classical Latin, "tutor"), from Greek papas "patriarch, bishop," originally "father."

  • Papal, papacy, later acquisitions in English, preserve the original vowel.

From Wikipedia:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the title "pope" in English is in an Old English translation (c. 950) of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

  • Þa wæs in þa tid Uitalius papa þæs apostolican seðles aldorbiscop.

In Modern English:

  • At that time, Pope Vitalian was chief bishop of the apostolic see.

Given the Greek/Latin original term which was adopted also by Old English, how and when did the vowel change come about?


1 Answer 1


The Old English form was apparently pronounced pāpa, with a long back open vowel in the first syllable (in the modern representation of Old English, ā represents a vowel reconstructed with the quality [ɑː]). A regular sound change turned Old English ā [ɑː] into Middle English [ɔː], a long back mid-open rounded vowel that was generally written with the letter o. And Middle English [ɔː] regularly develops to the modern English "long o" sound, which is spelled the same way.

The long vowel in the Old English form corresponds to a long open vowel in Latin:

  • Lat. pāpa, signifying properly 'spiritual father', i.e. 'pope', was borrowed by O.E. unchanged from the Latin in the form of the weak masc. pāpa, -an [...]

    The Latin title „papa“ was, as the reader is doubtless informed, at first applied to all bishops indiscriminately. And it was not until after the 5th Cent. that the Roman pontiff alone began to be addressed as ‘papa’. Consequently, O.E. pāpa, borrowed from the Lat. not until after the aforesaid period, designates only the pope.

    (The Influence of Christianity on the Vocabulary of Old English, Volume 1, by Hugh Swinton MacGillivray, p. 83)

I assume that the question "how and when did the vowel change come about?" is about the first vowel. The final -a of Old English pāpa would have turned into a schwa and then been lost. Word-final schwas were sometimes spelled with -e in Middle English, but after these schwas were lost, final -e was reinterpreted as a mark of vowel length (the so-called "silent e"). Because of this reinterpretation, final -e came to be used in the spelling of some words that hadn't originally been pronounced with a schwa sound, so there is no reliable association in either direction between the presence of a final -a in Old English and the presence of a final -e in modern English spelling. For example, Old English fola corresponds to modern English foal, while Old English dāl and rāp correspond to modern English dole and rope.

  • Perhaps also worth nothing that the final -a was probably lost before the GVS (or at the very least reduced to a schwa before and then lost during the GVS). Aug 1, 2019 at 22:05

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