patio

This is a nice warm-weather word. Where I live, summer is patio season – meaning that the local bars put out boulevard seating (or backyard seating, or rooftop seating) and people eat and drink outside because it’s warm enough to do that for up to a third of the year, and boy does everyone look forward to it. And of course people who have houses with patios may like to sit out on them too (though some people have decks rather than patios, and some just have lawns, and then there are those of us who live in apartments).

Canadians who were around in 1986 will surely think of Kim Mitchell’s hit song “Patio Lanterns.” Common collocations for patio include back patio, patio furniture, patio door, outdoor patio (which I think is rather redundant, no?), patio table, brick patio, concrete patio, and that general ilk of descriptive phrase from catalogue, narrative, and real estate. It’s a well-ensconced word, though it’s been in the language for less than a century.

It’s also a very good word for illustrating some important factors in the relation of spelling to pronunciation in English. I think it’s safe to say that the ratio of words with atio pronounced with a “sh” rather than a “t” is quite high. Especially if you bring in all the words that end in ation. Well, all except cation.

Here’s how it is: ratio and some other words ending in atio and all those words with the suffix ation come from Latin but have been in the language a long time (or at least the ation suffix has), so they’ve had lots of time to be subjected to nativizing phonological processes – in this case, palatalization and frication of the stop. They’re fully assimilated into the language. We have a few words from Latin such as consolatio (a consolatory piece of writing) and occupatio (a rhetorical tactic wherein one pretends not to mention something but in fact focuses on it – also known as preterition, with the usual pronunciation of ition) that are rarely used and can still be said as quoted from Latin (more or less); they’re not assimilated. And we have cation, which is a kind of ion (a positively charged one, as opposed to a negative anion), so we keep the full value of ion and treat the cat as a prefix (from Greek kata, as it happens; nothing to do with felines, though, as my high school chemistry teacher Mr. Stutz said, “cats have pos”).

And then there’s patio. It’s a Spanish word for a kind of courtyard. It was borrowed into English in the early 20th century – you can see it in a story by P.G. Wodehouse in 1931. A patio for Anglophones is sometimes concrete, sometimes brick, sometimes asphalt, but always paved, and adjoining the house or building on the exterior. (Except for with restaurants and bars, for which a patio is generally any outdoor seating, including on the rooftop. There are plenty of rooftop patios in Toronto. And that usage is not just local patois.) The Spanish pronunciation has been kept, because it’s a new borrowing and we most often keep the pronunciation fairly close to the source in our more recent borrowings.

Fairly close. Generally as close as a patio is to a house. The Spanish pronunciation won’t have any aspiration on the voiceless stops: no puff of air on the /p/ or /t/. And the a is said as [a] in Spanish. In standard British English, the stops are crisp (though unavoidably aspirated – that’s so standard in English most speakers don’t even know they’re doing it) and the vowel is still [a]. (Of course some dialects would turn the /t/ into a glottal stop.) But in North American English, that a moves forward to [æ], and the t is reduced to a tap, [ɾ], which is not aspirated or devoiced and so sounds more like a [d] (it’s not a [d], but the phoneme /d/ in the same place would be said the same way, [ɾ]). In order to get the same pronunciation in standard British English, you would have to write the word as pario, because [ɾ] for that dialect is an allophone of /r/. So the pronunciation is not entirely concrete; standard phonological processes and common phonotactics have paved the way for this word being an outlying annex in our spelling and pronunciation, and yet fully assimilated to the common property of English.

Oh, yes, common property. That may be where the word originally comes from. The Spanish word patio traces back through Catalan or Occitan to a word for common grazing pasture or uncultivated land; the Latin origin is either pactum ‘agreement’ or patere ‘lie open’. But scholars can’t entirely agree on which it is, so we’ll have to let that question lie open. And repair to the patio for refreshments.

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