Monday, October 19, 2009

That is Phonetically (ab)Surd

Just recently I heard the word "surd" for the first time. My initial thought was that it was a slang-like shortening of the word "absurd". How wrong I was.

According to, the word "surd" has the following two definitions:
1. Mathematics. An irrational number, such as √2.
2. Linguistics. A voiceless sound in speech.

I am amazed that in all of my linguistics studies and research I have never encountered the word. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn't be that amazed because a google search returns results that primarily pertain to mathematics.

Digging a bit deeper, the Online Etymology Dictionary includes this history:
1551, "irrational" (of numbers), from L. surdus "unheard, silent, dull," possibly related to susurrus "a muttering, whispering" (see susurration). The mathematical sense is from the use of L. surdus to translate Ar. (jadhr) asamm "deaf (root)," itself a loan-translation of Gk. alogos, lit. "speechless, without reason" (Euclid bk. x, Def.). In Fr., sourd remains the principal word for "deaf."



Lorelei said...

What's an example of a voiceless sound?

Wordacious said...

A voiceless sound is one made without vibration of the vocal chords. For example:

/p/, /t/ and /k/ are voiceless
/b/, /d/ and /g/ are voiced

Hold your fingers up to your throat near your Adam's apple and make the p-sound a few times, now make the b-sound a few times and then alternate between the sounds. You should feel a vibration with the b-sound that is not present for the p-sound.

Lorelei said...

Ah-ha! Very cool.

Stan said...

Surd is an interesting word, but — as far as I can tell — it is not used very often except in specialist circles, technical contexts, and bad puns. The OED includes a rare or obsolete entry for "surdity", meaning deafness, from French surdité or Latin surditas.

Rimpy said...

So is "absurd" related to surd?

Wordacious said...

Rimpy -

The OED includes the following under its definition of absurd:

[a. Fr. absurde, ad. L. absurd-us inharmonious, tasteless, foolish, f. ab off, here intensive + surdus deaf, inaudible, insufferable to the ear.]

If I am reading this correctly, it looks like "ab" is used as an intensifier and the words are related.

According to the OED, "surd" was first used in 1551 and "absurd" was first used in 1557.

ennoed said...

On a different issue. Could you explain why do we as english speakers apply french and other language accents in our pronounciation of foriegn words? I thought the english phonics were the basis of our pronounciation....

Wordacious said...

Ennoed - The phonemic inventory of the English language provides the basis for any speech sound made by a native speaker of English. With the same phonemic inventory, even individual words in English can be pronounced differently by different speakers. As far as the pronunciation of foreign words, I think, in general, speakers will try to imitate the perceived sound of a word as best they can with their phonemic inventory because that is how speakers learn new words.
Say "house"....."house"
Say "chateau"......"chateau"

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