85: Why is the 'Ch' in 'Christmas' pronounced as /k/?

It's all Greek to me! Knowing a little bit of history behind a word can go a long way when it comes to pronouncing the 'ch' spelling.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy and this is our 85th episode.

Since the holiday season is upon us, I thought I'd talk about a holiday word: Christmas. The c-h-r-i-s-t part of the word Christmas, not surprisingly, comes from the word Christ. The word Christ came from Greek, and means the anointed one. It is exactly the word Christmas's Greek-ness that causes it to be pronounced with a k sound instead of the usual ch sound of English pronunciation. It turns out this k sound pronunciation is widespread among words spelled ch that originated in Greek. Here are just some of them:




The word alchemy seems to be particularly resilient to pronunciation changes whe it gets adopted by a new language. It came to us, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from a long line of languages. We're using it in modern English directly from Middle English. Middle English got it from Old French, who borrowed it from medieval Latin, who adopted it from Arabic. Where did Arabic get it from? The Greeks! All that time it seems to have kept the k sound for its pronunciation.

The word alchemy does not have a major role in the vocabulary of many of us. However, derivations of that word include:




All of those words also kept the ch spelling and the k sound pronunciation.

The k sound, however, is not the only other ch pronunciation. Some of you may be asking, "What about the ch spelling having an sh sound pronunciation?" Etymology wins again. The words




are new words (relatively speaking) borrowed from French. Their sh sound pronunciation is due to their newness. For some reason, English speakers stopped anglicizing French words around the seventeenth century. Borrowed words newer then that have much less consistent pronunciations.

I wish I could give you a nice ch spelling and pronunciation rule for a Christmas present this year, but it seems that etymology, and not modern English phonics, prevails this round. Those ch words just need to be memorized.

As a special Christmas present for Pronuncian subscribers, I created a ch spelling quiz to help you learn and remember all three ch spelling pronunciations: the ch sound, k sound, and sh sound. If you're not a Pronuncian subscriber yet, maybe that would be a very nice holiday gift to give yourself. Plus, you'd be helping us out at the same time, so it would a double gift. What could be better?

Don't forget, follow us on Twitter at Pronuncian to keep up with all the latest additions to the Pronuncian website and other fun English bits.

Also, as usual, the transcripts for this show are posted to www.pronunican.com/podcast, and links to lessons with the ch quiz can be found with this show's transcripts.

Thanks for listening everyone, and I wish you a very happy and peaceful holiday season.


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