Supreme Pronunciations

by Ed Whelan

We hear a lot about Supreme Court pronouncements but very little about the justices’ pronunciations. Helping to fill that void, law professor James J. Duane has published a Green Bag essay titled “The Proper Pronunciation of Certiorari: The Supreme Court’s Surprising Six-Way Split.” (A petition for writ of certiorari—often referred to by the shorthand “cert petition”—is of course the typical means by which a party asks the Supreme Court to review a lower-court ruling.)

Duane’s subtitle provides a big clue to his findings, and I won’t try to summarize those findings here. Instead, I’ll just note a couple of things that surprised me:

1. According to Duane, “almost every modern justice articulates all five syllables of the word, … and almost all pronounce the first two syllables as ‘ser-shee.’”

My in-house Latin scholar (literally in-house—I’m referring to my 17-year-old son) tells me that the Latin pronunciation of certiorari would indeed have five syllables, but that it would be “cair-tee-o-rahr-ee”*—with a hard t in the second syllable. (He’s actually not sure whether the last two syllables would be “rahr-ee” or “rah-ree.”)   

What I find surprising is that anyone who Anglicizes the second syllable with sh would give the word five syllables. Words like nation and spatial have two syllables, not three, as ti operates to produce the sh sound, and the i doesn’t function as a separate vowel. To be sure, there is the rare exception: ratio has three syllables, but when we have letters after the o (ration, rational), the extra syllable disappears. [Update: On second thought, I pondered whether ratiocination contradicted my preceding assertion, but I now realize that its ti is “see,” not “she.”​]

In short, contrary to Duane and (by his account) “almost every modern justice,” I think that certiorari, in an Anglicized pronunciation, has only four syllables. I pronounce it “ser-shuh-rar-ee.”

2. According to Duane, the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Justice Breyer all pronounce the last syllable of certiorari with a long i (“eye”). I find that very strange. All three of the justices, I believe, have studied Romance languages, and, so far as I’m aware (I invite correction if I’m mistaken), a stand-alone i is never pronounced “eye” in those languages. Plus, they’re inconsistent: they make the second i long even as they pronounce the first i as “ee.” [Update: Well, we do make the closing long in fungi.]

But perhaps Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan have the best solution: avoiding pronouncing the word at all.

Update: The Washington Post’s Charles Lane covered this ground back in 2001.​ (Duane cites Lane’s article and “updates and expands upon his observations.”)

Further update: On my point 2, a learned reader emphasizes, as Duane himself does, that certiorari is a form of “Law Latin” (which Duane calls “a corrupted and debased version of Latin with a mixture of French and English influences”), and he counsels me against drawing any inferences from Romance languages. So perhaps it’s just Law Latin that is very strange.

* I initially had the first syllable as “sair.”

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