The Grammarphobia Blog

A chasm in pronunciation

Q: During Gwen Ifill’s interview with Sonia Sotomayor earlier this year, the Supreme Court justice pronounced “chasms” with the “ch” of “chat.” Has this pronunciation always been around and I’m just noticing it now?

A: In the Feb. 20, 2013, interview on PBS, Ifill asked about the associate justice’s comment in her memoir, My Beloved World, that she sees “bridges where other people see chasms.”

Sotomayor responded that one of “the lessons that I share in the book” is that you can accomplish more “if you build bridges and not chasms.”

In asking her question, Ifill pronounced “chasms” with the “ch” of “choir.” In answering her, Sotomayor pronounced it with the “ch” of “child.”

Who’s right? Well, the standard English pronunciation for “chasm” is KA-zum. The word starts with a hard “k” sound.

But the justice’s pronunciation may have been influenced by her Hispanic heritage. In Spanish, words beginning with ch are pronounced with a soft, sibilant sound, as in cheque, chico, and chocolate.

In English,  however, the consonant cluster “ch” is pronounced as a “k” in some words (like “chaos,” “Christ,” “school,” and “chemist”), and as a sibilant in others (“church,” “cheer,” “touch,” “chip”).

“Chasm” is in the first category—the “k” words. And despite the justice’s sibilant usage, the standard pronunciation hasn’t changed.

We’ve checked every source that’s available to us, from the Oxford English Dictionary  to a dozen or more standard British and American dictionaries, and the answer is always the same.

As the OED explains, English borrowed “chasm” in the 16th century from the Latin chasma, which in turn came from the Greek khasma (a yawning hollow).

In both Latin and Greek, the word starts with a “k” sound, and that pronunciation was preserved when the word was adopted into English.

Early on, the word was written in English as “chasma,” an exact reproduction of the Latin spelling. But by the 18th century, the spelling stabilized as “chasm.”

In its earliest uses, the word meant “a yawning or gaping, as of the sea, or of the earth in an earthquake,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from Charles Fitz-Geffrey’s biography Sir Francis Drake (1596): “Earth-gaping Chasma’s, that mishap aboades.”

By the early 1600s, the modern geological meaning had  become established. Here’s the OED’s definition:

“A large and deep rent, cleft, or fissure in the surface of the earth or other cosmical body. In later times extended to a fissure or gap, not referred to the earth as a whole, e.g. in a mountain, rock, glacier, between two precipices, etc.”

At about the same time, looser meanings were also being recorded, and a “chasm” could be a cleft in any structure (like a building).

Figurative uses also appeared in the 17th century, the OED says, so a “chasm” could mean “a break marking a divergence, or a wide and profound difference,” and in fact it could mean a breach or gap in almost anything.

In her interview on PBS NewsHour,  Sotomayor used the word figuratively when she talked about building “bridges and not chasms.” (In her book, we should note, she actually writes of “bridges” and “walls,” not “bridges” and “chasms.”)

In short, the various meanings of “chasm” are well established, and so is its pronunciation.

 

Check out our books about the English language