Why “Quarantine” is not pronounced like “Quark”

Es is a word that has become a household name in the present day: quarantine. But how do you actually pronounce it – and why?

In German, the “Qu” is usually pronounced like “Kw”. Examples are “Quark” or “Quiz”. Nobody would make “Kalle” and “Kalität” out of “Qualle” and “Quality”. The quarantine is an exception here, in which the “Q” is pronounced like a “K”: Karantäne. Or with the help of the phonetic alphabet: [karanˈtɛːnə]. There are subtle but clearly audible differences between the Austrian, Swiss and German pronunciation. The Austrians, for example, pronounce the “ä” more like a half-closed “e”, the Germans like a half-open.

The author and blogger Bastian Sick (“The dative is the genitive his death”) explained months ago how it comes to the rare pronunciation in German. Accordingly, quarantine is a term taken over from French in which the “Q” – as in its original language – is pronounced like a “K”. The condition for this is the word sequence “Qu”. Further examples are the “Queue” (billiard stick) known from billiards and the hearty “Quiche”.

In addition to French, this pronunciation also applies to words that have been adopted from Spanish. Think of Ecuador’s capital “Quito” or the world-famous novel “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes.

Quarantine is derived from the French “la quarantaine”. This cannot be translated one-to-one into German – at most one could speak of the “forties”. This means the number of days, namely forty, that a ship with suspicious animals, goods or supposedly infected people had to stay in port to prevent the plague from spreading. It was originally introduced by the Italians in the 14th century. One spoke of the “quaranta giorni”.

Incidentally, it is not entirely certain whether quarantine will continue to be pronounced in German with “K” instead of “Kw” in the next influential pandemic such as Covid-19. Language changes. And with it our debate. Who knows, there may be the “Kwarantine” to be heard soon.

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