Among the descendants of the Latin word sic ("thus, so, or just like that"), only the Portuguese word sim ends with a nasal consonant. Actually, in modern Portuguese, it ends with a nasal vowel, [sĩ], which must have developed from [sim] by assimilation. Compare this with its "sister" words, taken from the Wiktionary, which have all dropped the final [k]:

  • Aromanian: shi
  • French: si, ainsi
  • Italian: sì, così
  • Romanian: și
  • Spanish: sí , así
  • Catalan: així

The closest word is the French (no surprise, given we are talking about nasalization) ainsi, which comes from Latin (ad) + in + sic. So where did this nasal at the end in Portuguese sim come from? Could it be a further development from French? Something like ainsi becoming assim (and later, sim), by metathesis?

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    I don't have evidence, but this does look like a case of progressive nasalization: in + sic -> . – Mark Beadles Jun 21 '12 at 17:52
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    @voikya: and note that at least in contemporary Portuguese, the '-m' is purely a marker of nasalisation, it has no labial element. I don't know whether or not there was a labial element in this word in the past, but I would guess not. – Colin Fine Jul 2 '12 at 15:59
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    This quite unrelated paper cites sic > sim as an example of analogical change, on the model of antonym não: sealang.net/sala/archives/pdf8/kosaka2002affiliation.pdf – ROBOKiTTY Jul 16 '12 at 19:51
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    One possibility stems from the fact that non-nasal /i/ and nasal /ĩ/ are fairly similar acoustically, more so than other nasal/non-nasal pairs. (This is because there isn't much space to nasalize /i/ without blocking the mouth completely and producing a syllabic nasal; hence /ĩ/ isn't very strongly nasalized.) Thus it would be easier for L1 learners to confuse them. – Urban Vagabond Oct 15 '13 at 6:12
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    I do not know how it happened, but I would point the similar nec -> nem derivation. Maybe that doesn't make it a regular change, but it is not an isolated phenomenon either. – Luís Henrique Oct 16 '16 at 9:32

In the late sixteenth century, there was a sporadic sound change in Portuguese which caused some stressed, word-final /i/s to become nasalised.

Examples: sim, marfim, assim, metim, morim.

An older theory is that it was an influence of the nasalisation present in the antonym não.

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    It have affected even Tupi loanwords in Brazil, for example the Portuguese "capim", from Tupi "kaapii"; or "tupiniquim" from Tupi "tupiniki". – Seninha Sep 27 '17 at 19:14

I think you’re looking at this backwards.

The Portuguese word spelled sim did not come to be pronounced [sĩ] through some sort of assimilation of nasal consonant, the way occurred with Portuguese fim [fĩ] and um [ũ], or even sem < Latin sine.

Rather, the word came to be pronounced that way, and so came to spelled in a way that indicated its nasalization, and ‹im› is simply how one spells [ĩ] there.

Although not all nasalization in Portuguese is explicitly marked in the orthography (for example, in muito [mũĩ̯tu]), with sim [sĩ], it is. Similarly, Portuguese assim [ɐˈsĩ] is written with an ‹im›. This developed from Latin ad sic, “with nasalization”.[ref] The history of Portuguese is complex and uneven, and did not settle down until much later than in languages such as neighboring Spanish did back in the 1500s.

Nasalization and palatalizations were variously marked with an tilde, with an n or m, or with a following h — or with some combination of these:[ref]

  • cimco > cinco
  • grãde > grande
  • tẽpo > tempo
  • razõ > razom
  • camĩho > caminho

In the earliest preserved texts of what would become Portuguese, you see the letter h used innovatively, as in sabha for sabia, or mha for what become modern minha, meu. For example, Dom Denis wrote in one of his Cantigas de Amor:[ref]

Proençaes soen mui ben trobar
e dizen eles que é con amor;
mais os que troban no tempo da frol
e non en outro, sei eu ben que non
an tan gran coita no seu coraçon
qual m'eu por mha senhor vejo levar.

In contrast, Afonso Xº wrote mia for the same word used in the same situation in his Cantigas de Santa Maria:[ref]

Con sennor, assi dizia, | chorando mui feramente:
«Mia Sennor, eu a ti venno | como moller que se sente
de grand' erro que á feito; | mas, Sennor, venna-ch' a mente
se che fiz algun serviço, | e guarda-me mia pessõa
Atant' é Santa Maria | de toda bondade bõa...

Afonso writes other othographically interesting things, like non poss' eu perdon gãar for modern Portuguese ganhar[ref], or non disse ssi nen non[ref]. There we see that Latin sic has for Afonso become ssi without the nasalization marking present in nen, the same word which would become modern Spanish ni, but there unnasalized.

In other places, Afonso uses mi as a prepositional object, which modern Portuguese would spell as mim with final ‹im› to indicate nasalization, despite there never having been an historical dental consonant. Similarly, as words like mha, mia, mi came to be pronounced with nasalization, these were also reanalysed the way medieval ũa would. On page 147 of The Romance Languages [Harris&Vincent; OUP 1990], in the section on historical Portuguese morphology, they write:

Both the articles show abnormal phonetic developments. In the indefinite article, derived from the numeral UNUM, the feminine forms would ordinarily have been denasalised, as ∗[ua], ∗[uas], but retain their nasality, by analogy with the masculine. The modern feminine forms developed in the seventeenth sentury, though glide epenthesesis ũa > ∗uw̃a > uma possibly influenced by the orthographic form of the masculine, (h)um.

On page 143, the authors explain that ‹‑m› and ‹‑n› are modern orthographic indicators of nasality, which in earlier days used a tilde, or which were not indicated in the orthography at all. They warn that “in many cases (e.g. = ta(n)?) its interpretation is a matter of dispute between linguists and paleographers.”

So analogous forms of writing nasalized vowels using a following ‹m› in the orthography influenced how nasal vowels would coming to be written as orthography became more regular. There was no historical nasal consonant left in mea > mha, mia > minha, but it got written that way, and this in turn came to influence the pronunciation. Similarly, the spellings of mim, sim, assim represent the comparatively recent orthographic invention/convention for writing a [ĩ] there, despite there never having been a nasal consonant present to assimilate. In some cases, there was; in some cases there was not; and in some cases, it is a matter of some dispute just what was actually going on there.

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    Your answer is incredibly detailed and interesting! +1 for that. Nevertheless, it doesn't explain how (or why) [si] nasalized in the first place. – Otavio Macedo Aug 5 '12 at 23:57
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    @OtavioMacedo I’m still working on that part. I’m convinced there something interesting with sic > ssi > sim; ad sic > assim; mihi > mi > mim; mea > mha, mia. mi > minha. Those that start with m might possibly be explained by anticipatory assimilation, but those that start from sic cannot be. – tchrist Aug 6 '12 at 0:00
  • Actually, the Cantigas de Santa Maria by Afonso X are written in Old Galician (or in the Galician variant of Galician-Portuguese). – Miguel Costa Dec 23 '16 at 13:14
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    The Galician-Portuguese "mia" into Modern-Portuguese "minha" is by nasal assimilation that affected some initial syllables starting with m followed by a vowel sequence (either the hiatus "ia", or a falling diphthong not followed by another vowel). Compare to mai>mãe, muito>muito (actually /mũj.to/, the nasal assimilation isn't indicated in spelling), but meia>meia and maior>maior (both not nasalized). – Seninha Sep 27 '17 at 19:25
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    Correction on my previous comment: "[...] (either the hiatus 'ia', or a falling diphthong in '-i' not followed by another vowel) [...]." Only the vowel sequences containing /i/ "ia, ai, ui..." got this change. It differs from si/assi > sim/assim, which have the similar final "-i" context, because it was applied in cases where the "i" may or may not be final (e.g., "muito", "minha"). Without the correction, I was mistakenly saying that the -u diphthongs "meu" and "mau" evolved into "mẽo" and "mão". – Seninha Sep 28 '17 at 0:46

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