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Usually it's fairly easy to know the spelling of words in Italian, given the very close relation between that and pronunciation.

But that's not always true. The word musulmano in Italian (which means Muslim), has one S, but it's pronounced like it had two. There is actually an alternative spelling, mussulmano, but I've personally never seen it used so much. Besides, it doesn't explain that much about what I'm wondering.

The dictionary states that the etymology is from the Arabian-Persian muslimān. I'm sure we have other loanwords from the Arabic language, and as far as I can remember, none of them stands out like this one.

Italian has a rule about the S in inter-vowel position, but my example is pronounced like an actual SS. See for example:

  • casa - cassa;
  • dosi - dossi;
  • leso - lesso.

The first examples, are not pronounced with a voiced S, but they are still distinguishable from the second ones, not only because in actual language not everyone pronounces it voiceless, but also because it's less stressed if compared to the second examples.

So my questions are, what is this phenomenon called (if it is)? And why did it happened, apparently, to this word only? Or are there other examples?

Probably the reason is that earlier it was written as "mussulmano", then that changed and pronunciation stayed the same, but I'd like to know if this guess is confirmed or not.

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    Are you referring to the gemination of the s? Jan 23, 2012 at 20:07
  • Syntactic doubling in Italian is the generalization of this. Jan 23, 2012 at 20:09
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    This doesn't sound like syntactic doubling to me. Syntactic doubling happens at word boundaries; this is a word-internal geminate consonant that isn't represented in spelling. Jan 24, 2012 at 0:57
  • I don't follow parts of your question. What does "but also because it's less stressed if compared to the second examples" mean? Stressed how? the stressed pattern varies? Secondly, are you referring to the fact that musulmano is an orthographic exception, or about the phonology of the language in general?
    – user325
    Jan 24, 2012 at 3:34
  • @Knitter The "s" in "Casa" is not a [z] sound, like "rosa". It's voiceless, theoretically, but still distinguishable from "cassa", although also the [ka:za] pronunciation is spread (I pronounce it this way, honestly). Now, "musulmano" is not pronounced like "casa", but rather like "cassa" or at least this is what my ear tells me, I'm trying to find some IPA. That's why it sounds like an exception. Hope my comment helped you... :) I'll try to provide some IPA transcriptions for those words, so you can understand better.
    – Alenanno
    Jan 24, 2012 at 9:37

2 Answers 2

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This is the s sorda, o s aspra. Musulmano/mussulmano is given as an example in the wikipedia article.

In posizione intervocalica, dunque, mentre la sonora /z/ si può considerare la regola, si ha la sorda /s/ soltanto in un numero relativamente ristretto di terminazioni e di parole: ...In quelle parole che hanno una variante con la doppia -s-: musulmano (anche mussulmano), Albisola (anche Albissola), ecc.;

In intervocalic position, therefore, while the sound /z/ can be considered the rule, there can be found /s/ in a relatively small number of terms and words: ...In those words that have a variant with double -s: musulmano/mussulamano, etc.

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    Sure, but you did ask specifically, "So my questions are, what is this phenomenon called (if it is)? And why did it happened, apparently, to this word only? Or are there other examples?"? This answers all those: It's called s sorda; it happened to this word because it has an alternate spelling with a double s, and there are few other examples, given in the article. Jan 24, 2012 at 17:25
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    You also asked "Probably the reason is that earlier it was written as "mussulmano", then that changed and pronunciation stayed the same, but I'd like to know if this guess is confirmed or not." and the article confirms this. I'm not sure what else can be said! :) Jan 24, 2012 at 17:26
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    Perhaps you did not read the linked article in full? It is quite helpful. Jan 24, 2012 at 17:27
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    Of course I read it and it wasn't satisfactory, that's why I asked it here. That isn't exactly the linguistics explanation I was looking for, it sounds like "the sky is blue because it's not red".
    – Alenanno
    Jan 24, 2012 at 17:27
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    I'm sorry it's not satisfactory, I genuinely thought this was a good answer to the questions you asked. Sometimes the truth is boring! :) Jan 24, 2012 at 17:29
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Term

Yes, this is syntactic doubling, or, more formally, epenthesis.

Cases

Resolving homophony between the words (errare vs. e rare) is described well in comments above, so I would not elaborate here. You may find this link useful for formal rules.

The other reason seems to me interesting as well. It occurs even in English (compare lesson vs. lessen).

The reason for this phenomenon is that written forms sometimes evolved faster than phonetics. This was especially noticeable for ancient words that were used in sacral texts and are mostly loanwords from Latin, ancient Greek, or PIE:

  • casa, most likely, derived from PIE *kat-
  • leso, from Latin laedere
  • and so on...

Although the written form has lost the original consonants, the missing consonant sounds still remain in phonetic, e.g. *kat+sa, laed+so. Of course, they are diminished and tend to further reducing.

Here's an example from Thai language. The word จักร [tɕàk] is borrowed from Sanskrit चक्र [cakra] ("wheel"). In most words, it looks like this: จตุจักร [tɕà-tù-tɕàk]. However, in the middle of polysyllabic words, the missing [kra] re-appears as complete syllable: จักรยานยนต์ [tɕàk-krà-yaan-yon] ("bicycle").

There is an interesting book discussing consonant harmony: Walker, Rachel: Long-distance consonantal identity effects, 2000.

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    In my idiolect of Australian English, lesson and lesson are homophones. I can't recall ever hearing them not homophonous either. Dec 31, 2013 at 5:36
  • @hippietrail I am trying to convince myself that they are different, but struggling. Thank you for your comment.
    – Mark D
    Dec 31, 2013 at 21:58
  • You're welcome. And sorry about my typo of writing the same word twice! Jan 1, 2014 at 1:47

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