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, 2012 at 1:45
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    @Robusto: I don't know.
    – Daniel
    Jan 23, 2012 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, 2012 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. Jan 23, 2012 at 1:59
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    @rajah9 english.stackexchange.com/questions/9829/…
    – user11550
    Jan 23, 2012 at 2:26

2 Answers 2


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, 2013 at 16:06
  • a deeply opinionated and anecdotal take though it may be, I personally think "SARgent" sounds more "English" than "SERgent" would, which I conjecture is why it stuck. May 23, 2017 at 18:31

The 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 especially in the case of their names and place names, so 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 post from JWL. Check his Grapho-Phonemic mis-cordinations.

  • 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, 2013 at 22:49

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