Daily Archives: March 3, 2010


In case you were wondering whether we have any words in English that can’t be pronounced according to English phonotactics, well, yes, of course we do. English is rapacious and will take words from anywhere if it sees them as suitable and desirable.

Take, for example, pschent. This is not a typo for Paschen or psyche or anything else, not even James Joyce’s pftjschute. It is also not pronounced like pshaw but with an ent in place of the aw. No, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it begins with a voiceless bilabial stop, which is followed by a voiceless alveolar fricative – /ps/, already a forbidden onset in English, even though we have tons of words starting with the letters ps thanks to /ps/ being so common in Greek as to have its own letter – and that in turn is followed by a voiceless velar fricative, as in German ach (and written [x] in the International Phonetic Alphabet), a sound we no longer even have in English, officially. And then, then, then, finally then, you get to say the same sounds as the end of went. It seems like some pop-bottle explosion: “Man, someone musta shook that Coke, cuz it just pschent!” No wonder some other dictionaries allow this word an onset of just /sk/.

So, ah, what is it really, this pschent? Well, Torontonians have lately had a chance to see plenty of pictures and sculptures of it, if they’ve visited the King Tut exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. You probably thought of it as a double crown (which sounds like a coin or a brand of beer). The pharaoh of unified Egypt was a man who wore two hats, you see. At the same time. One was the milk-bottle-shaped white crown of Upper (southern) Egypt; the other was the more rakish red crown of Lower (northern) Egypt, which just so happened to fit around the white crown like a zarf (or one of those jugs one puts ones milk bags into, if one drinks milk from bags). The pschent was, in its way, Egypt’s answer to the Union Jack. Only worn on the king’s head.

This word was one of the ones on the Rosetta Stone, that parallel text that first allowed the hieroglyphs to be deciphered. Pschent was in the Greek and in the Egyptian demotic script; it comes from p “the” and skhnt “sekhemti”. Oh, I should say that sekhemti was the hieroglyph for this crown; it meant “two powerful ones”. But we couldn’t borrow that word! Where would be the fun in that? Be happy at least that we took the Greek version, with the e in it; skhnt can only be said when one is sound asleep. Not that one has many occasions to speak of pschents in daily life, of course.