I am aware that words like "obtain," "retain," and "contain" are related to the root "tenere" meaning "to have."

What (if anything) determines if the "ten" goes to "tain" in English? We have words like:

  1. Detention
  2. Untenable
  3. Tenacious
  4. Tender

While also having words like

  1. Unobtainable
  2. Detain
  3. Entertainment

I am aware of some words in Latin ending in "-tenire" instead of "-tenere" and I wonder if this is related?

  • 2
    -e- is the original spelling, so the question should really be why some forms have -ai-. Small note on this at en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/maintenance – Adam Bittlingmayer Nov 14 '19 at 19:20
  • It looks as if you have isolated two different phases of development. Bittlingmayer's link does not explain why the spelling was changed, but I'd assume that it was to make the spelling phonetic. My first instinct is to assume Germanic heritage, and indeed there's a tangent (tan-g-ent :D) to tooth, if we may analoguously compare fangs and Ger fangen "to catch" and then some, but I haven't worked it out; I see no zent- in German, and assuming a late dental infix leads to mentioned tooth, which is, alas, corresponds to Latin dent. So it's coincidence … if one believes in coincidences – vectory Nov 14 '19 at 19:52
  • 2
    I have no idea what you are talking about @vectory in bringing in teeth and fangen. I certainly thought that the difference was Latin vs French. – Colin Fine Nov 14 '19 at 23:31
  • 2
    To the close-voters: this certainly doesn't seem to be a grammar and usage question, it's a question about historical sound changes affecting a loanword. – Draconis Nov 15 '19 at 3:58
  • 1
    @LjL If it's closed, we can vote to reopen; in the meantime, I've brought it up on Meta before. – Draconis Nov 16 '19 at 1:23

Syllable codas in Old/Middle French, plus analogy.

In the development of French, Latin /e/ developed differently in open syllables vs closed syllables: this is why we have "detain" (MFr dé.te.nir) vs "detention" (MFr dé.ten.tion).

The form in "detain" was usually spelled ei or ey in Middle English, separate from the vowel spelled ai or ay (which, in French, developed from Latin /a/ in open syllables). The two were probably something like [ej aj] respectively, though of course we can't be too certain about pronunciation.

But over the lifetime of Middle English, those two diphthongs merged together, and their spellings varied wildly as people were no longer sure which ones to spell with an e and which ones to spell with an a. Eventually, "detain" and its brethren ended up spelled with ai, even though that vowel comes from a Latin e instead of a Latin a.

(Forms like "entertainment", with ai in a closed syllable, were either formed within English, or their spellings were changed by analogy with "entertain" and "entertaining".)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.