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Simple question. How did the English word "possess" come to have a voiced "Z" sound for the first double-S?

Are there any other words that have this? Doesn't double-S consistently mean an unvoiced S sound, across a number of Germanic languages, English included?

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    This question's kind of upside down! The writing is just a way to try to capture the sound. The sound is /z/, so the question is how did it come tone spelled with a double < s >? Aug 15, 2023 at 7:18
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    @Araucaria Not really in this case. Possess is a loan from French, where it has an unvoiced /s/ (also written ⟨ss⟩), and French /s/ is normally borrowed as /s/, not /z/; cf. assess, which is from the same root, only with a different prefix. So the question of how it came to be written with a double ⟨s⟩ is trivial: because that’s how it’s written in French. But the question of how it came to be pronounced with /z/ in English, instead of the /s/ found in every other language where the word appears, is an interesting one. Aug 15, 2023 at 7:29
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    The rule in English, such as it is, is that between an unstressed and a stressed vowel, /s/ > /z/. The spellings <ss> and <sc> did not undergo that change in French or Anglo-Latin, but English by default did not care. Possess is actually following the default rule of English, as “poeZES” (Jespersen §6.64). That shows you that English ignored by default the fact that the words were spelled with a <sc> or <ss>: the rule /s/ > /z/ /_ˈV was a rule of English, whatever was going on in French. (From Quora)
    – user 66974
    Aug 15, 2023 at 7:46
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    That means that it was originally pronounced as “siZOORZ”, with the accent in the end, like for any French word borrowed into English. As with other such French words (prison, reason, season), the “z” pronunciation stuck after we shifted the stress to the initial syllable, making them match Germanic (Jespersen §6.67). But during that whole process, the double <ss> (which does prevent “z” within French) was cosmetic.
    – user 66974
    Aug 15, 2023 at 8:22
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    See also: jstor.org/stable/30248933
    – user 66974
    Aug 15, 2023 at 9:23

3 Answers 3

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Alex B’s excellent answer is correct and authoritative, but a bit heavy on technical language which many readers may not be familiar with. I’ll try to give a self-contained answer in slightly plainer language, summarising that answer together with some context from comments on the question, and answering OP’s specific questions directly — but this draws heavily on Alex B’s answer, and the sources linked there.

Possess is spelled with ss because it’s a loanword from French; in French it was spelled with ss to represent the unvoiced sound /s/, and the borrowed English spelling was modelled on the French. After borrowing to English, the /s/ changed pronunciation to /z/ because it’s between two vowels and following an unstressed syllable. This pronunciation change occurred fairly systematically in English around the 16th century, and so there are various other words like this, e.g. dessert, dissolve, example, Alexander. On the other hand, words borrowed later missed this change, so e.g. cassette is still pronounced with /s/ rather than /z/.

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    Thanks, you are correct, I think some of the technical language meant I missed the answers to my questions, especially about the difference between earlier loanwords and later ones.
    – Nacht
    Aug 16, 2023 at 13:03
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    @vectory "It's pretty easy to say you are wrong here because you are not correct at all." What is the point of this sentence? Aug 17, 2023 at 1:53
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    Modern French «exemple» and «Alexandre» are pronounced with /gz/ instead of /ks/. Were they /ks/ before? (If it's relevant, from what I can tell as a learner, the rule is: A single consonant letter between vowels means it's voiced and a double means unvoiced, including things where English differs, like «absoudre» /aps-/ vs "absolve" /əbz-/.)
    – wjandrea
    Aug 17, 2023 at 17:17
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    Erm I don't get your last two examples. The /z/ in Alexander is not between two vowels and the same goes for example!!! Aug 18, 2023 at 15:10
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore.: Absolutely, in those examples its not exactly the same change of just /s/ getting voiced to /z/ — it’s the combined sequence /ks/ getting voiced to /gz/, which seems to have occurred as part of the same systematic change (according to the Minkova 2014 book as cited in Alex B.’s answer).
    – PLL
    Aug 18, 2023 at 15:39
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Here's a quote from Upward and Davidson 2011:

"Voicing of intervocalic /s/ to /z/, written s or ss, after an unstressed syllable in words such as desist, resist (compare the pronunciation of consist, insist), dessert, possess occurred in EModE, at first with both voiced and voiceless forms co-existing" (p. 189).

EModE stands for Early Modern English, i.e. c. 1476- c.1660 (Ibid, p. xiv), so in the much later French borrowings it was not operational e.g. in cassette (its first attested use in the OED goes back only to 1793 meaning 'casket').

Cf. Minkova 2014 (the online companion to her 2014 textbook, A historical phonology of English):

“Lack of stress and possibly ambisyllabic status will account for the voicing of [s] in the early Modern English voicing in French and Latin loans such as possess, dessert, dissolve, where the conditions of voicing replicate Verner’s Law (see 3.4.1). The prefix dis- was commonly voiced prevocalically in the eighteenth century – disarm, dishonour, disorder – but only disaster and disease maintain the voicing” (p. 24).

In the above-mentioned 2014 textbook she describes this change as

“a sixteenth-century tendency to voice fricatives after unstressed syllables, manifested in the voicing of /s/ to /z/ in loanwords, mostly, but not exclusively after prefixes – resign, transact, example, Alexander – and even against the spelling in possess, dessert, dissolve” (p. 66).

A note re: pronunciation of French example, exact etc.:

Obviously, the English words example and exact were borrowed a while ago, the first attested uses listed in the OED are

  • exacte (1533, T. More “Suche exacte cyrcumspeccion”) – borrowed from Latin, cf. the first attested use of exact, -e in French is ca. 1542 (Dictionnaire historique de la langue francaise);
  • exsaumple (ca1382, “Bi this exsaumple [Latin hoc exemplo]” – borrowed from French. In Middle English there was a lot of variation, so we can also find such forms as exsample, exsaumpyll, exsaunpyll, exsawmple, exsaumple – which means those were pronounced with [ks].

It’s important to note that Latin ex- changed in Old French to either ss (before a vowel) or s (before a consonant), see Zink 2013: 233. So we have

Latin exagium > French essai

Latin extendere > French étendre (cf. Old French estendre)

Whenever you see a French word beginning with ex-, it means it was either much later borrowed from Latin (like exact, -e ca. 1542) or its spelling was changed during the so called Erasmian reform (like exemple).

Latin exemplum > Old French es(s)ample, essemple

Note: Kibler 1984 “x in Latin represented the combination /k+s/; it may represent the same sound in Old French” (except in the word-final position where it stood for -us, p. 19)

Pierre Fouché in the third volume of his Phonétique historique du français (v. III Les consonnes et index général) mentions that in the sixteenth century, we encounter such forms in French as ezemple, euzemple, ezerice, euzecuter – which means those were pronounced with [z] (not [gz]!) in Middle French and up until the sixteenth century. Then during the Erasmian reform the kind of pronunciation closer to Latin was "restored" in such French words, cf.

« Il est vrai qu'à côté de egzemple, on a prononcé aussi eksemple. Cette prononciation était encore en usage du temps de Vaugelas (1647) qui la condamne d'ailleurs. Elle correspond à une prononciation plus savante du latin (=eksemplum), celle qui a été indiquée plus haut résultant d'un compromis avec la prononciation ancienne soit du français, soit du latin lui-même » (p. 874).

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    Upward & Davidson's implied pronunciation of desist as dezist is curious. Who says that? Aug 16, 2023 at 9:32
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    @JohnBentin well, I have to admit, as I was typing it, I myself had to look it up in the dictionaries because I found it odd - but, all the major English dictionaries published in the last twenty years do list both variants, with [s] (usually the primary variant) and [z]. That being said, the latest Fowler (2015, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield) literally says the following, "Traditionally pronounced as [dɪˈzɪst], but [dɪˈsɪst] is an acceptable variant."
    – Alex B.
    Aug 16, 2023 at 12:43
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    I (AmE native speaker) have never heard anyone, in any media, pronounce “desist” with any [z] sound anywhere. I wonder how much the fixed pair “cease and desist” has played a role in that...
    – KRyan
    Aug 18, 2023 at 13:14
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    I definitely say desist with a /z/. Brit. Aug 18, 2023 at 15:15
-6

There are two questions.

Doesn't double-S consistently mean an unvoiced S sound, across a number of Germanic languages, English included?

That's irrelevant since the spelling does originate from a common Germanic parent. The spelling does not dictate the pronunciation, except in spelling pronounciation. Nor is there an obvious morphologic rule from Latin to apply.

Simple question. How did the English word "possess" come to have a voiced "Z" sound for the first double-S?

It doesn't? I mean, I didn't know it does.

The etymology that makes it cognate to potesse, potential is also no help since t is voiceless to begin with. Unless it should formally have been *testo with a *-d-* coda prefix, such as address vs. assent vs. ad-tention, it would have to be an English thing as determjned by @AlexB. However ...

Since the image of emperor stomping fallen guy is exceedingly common in ancient art (see eg. the Namor Stele), implying taking of PoW, I have no trouble believing that **ped- "step" (whence feet, pedes, etc.) is tangentially related, but I am pretty sure there are no authoritative sources to confirm this and I have no idea what to reconstruct in the bell end.

The German standard translation is besitzen, specifally besessen "possessed" (as of demons), indicating sed "sit" (cp. squat (a building)?).

Are there any other words that have this?

In Latin? How about English for a start, Boss? Buzz instead of booze, and consequently buzzed to show which is correct, thus the fuzz belongs to (voiced?) fuse (often spelled fuze, a circuit breaker, German Schütz, literally prötection?).

Geminate -zz- exists in many more words which spelling adheres to English pronunciation rather than the typical hypercorrect Lateinasation of i(s)land (which, if true and originally voiced, should become Ireland, a land of law, origin uncertain).

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