[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]
Eng. sergeant ~ Sp. sargento/a
In the previous section we said that the present participle of Lat. sĕrvīre, namely Lat. sĕrvĭēns (accusative wordform sĕrvĭentem) was used exclusively as an adjective in Latin and was never used as a noun in this language, the way its successors would be in French and Spanish. We said that the first Romance language in which this participle started to be used as a noun was probably Old French, where servant, the present participle of the verb servir, came to be used with the nominal meaning ‘person who serves’. This word was then borrowed by English and was calqued by other Romance languages, which started using their own present participles of their verb that descended from Latin sĕrvīre with the same meaning. That is how Spanish, for example, started to use sirviente, the present participle of the verb servir, as a noun meaning ‘servant’ in addition to having the expected adjectival meaning ‘that serves’.
But it seems that Old French, spoken in what is now northern France approximately between the 8th and 14th centuries, probably had a precedent in the noun use of this participle in the variety of late Latin or early Romance that preceded it in this geographical region, in which the participle sĕrvĭentem had already started to be used as a noun meaning something like ‘servant’. This word existed side by side in Old French with the present participle servant that we just saw, and it came to be written down variously as sergent, serjant, sergeant, sergient, among other possible ways in Old French. This Old French word came to be specialized to refer to a ‘public servant’ or ‘court official’ and, eventually, a ‘military servant’ or ‘soldier’. This latter meaning is one of the meanings the word had in medieval Old French. The word is still in use in Modern French, where it is spelled sergent and pronounced [sɛʀˈʒɑ̃], feminine sergente [sɛʀˈʒɑ̃t]. This spelling is attested first in the early 13th century (the first spelling was serjant, attested in 1050). In modern times, Fr. sergent refers now to a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the military (Sp. suboficial), just like its cognates in other languages. Another meaning this French word had until recently, now archaic, is ‘town constable’ or ‘police officer’, as in sergent de ville.
Figure 4: A three chevron insignia is the symbol of sergeants in many countries[i]
This French word has been borrowed by every European language resulting, for example, in the cognates Eng. sergeant ~ Sp. sargento. All these words have very similar meanings to that of Modern French sergent, referring to non-commissioned officers, a meaning that started in the 16th century. In the US Army, there are different types of sergeant: such as (plain) sergeant, staff sergeant, master sergeant, and sergeant major. In the Spanish army, there are only two types of sargento, plain sargento and sargento primero.[i] Air forces also have sergeants, though not navies. Dictionaries define modern Eng. sergeant as first of all as ‘a rank of non-commissioned officer in the army or air force, above corporal and below staff sergeant’ (COED). In the police, in the US, a sergeant is ‘a police officer ranking below a lieutenant’ and in Britain, ‘a police officer ranking below an inspector’ (COED).
As we saw, the meaning that Eng. sergeant has today is not the meaning it had when it was borrowed, or the same one it has had through time. The OED lists 9 major senses that this word has had through time, 5 of which with subsenses, most of which are obsolete or archaic. The modern sense for a military rank in the army is from the 16th century, though the term had been used earlier for officers and soldiers at different times. The English word sergeant is first attested in the early 13th century with the meaning ‘attendant, servant’ and, by the end of the 13th century it had the meaning ‘common soldier’, much like in Old French. The modern military sense of this word started in the French cognate in the 16th century, and English borrowed that sense, an example of semantic calquing performed on a borrowed word. The ‘police officer’ sense is from the 19th century.
The spelling and pronunciation of the English word sergeant deserve some comment. When it was first borrowed into English, this word is attested with dozens of different spellings (OED). Eventually, English settled on two of those spellings, both attested in French as well, namely sergeant and serjeant. The two spellings were for a long time used indiscriminately, but ‘[i]n recent times, however, the spelling serjeant has come to be generally adopted as the correct form when the word is the designation of a member of the legal profession, while sergeant is the prevailing form in the other surviving senses, and in most of them the only form in use’ (OED). The variant serjeant used in legal contexts is mostly used only in the United Kingdom.
The pronunciation of Eng. sergeant is [ˈsɑɹ.ʤənt] (with long [ɑː] instead of [ɑɹ] in standard British English, of course). The spelling of the two vowel sounds is somewhat unusual, however. First of all, the reduced (schwa) sound [ə] is rarely spelled 〈ea〉 in English (the only other case is probably pageant; also, exigeant is an alternate spelling of exigent). Thus, perhaps it would have made more sense if the Eng. sergeant had been spelled as in Modern French, namely sergent. Actually, the pronunciation of the first vowel is even more unusual. This vowel is pronounced as a broad [ɑ], a low back vowel, in most dialects of English, though it may be a more central low vowel [ä] or [ɐ] in others (cf. Part I, Chapter 7). It is very unusual for that sound to be spelled with the letter 〈e〉 in English, since that sound is typically spelled 〈a〉, as in the words palm, father, and half.
Now, it is not rare for a word that had the sound [ɛ] in Old French, spelled 〈e〉, to come to be pronounced with a broad a sound in some dialects of English when this vowel came before the letter (sound) r, which is what seems to have happened here. Typically, however, when such a sound change occurred, the spelling of the word also changed from 〈e〉 to 〈a〉. Thus, for example, English borrowed the word clerk, a doublet of cleric, from Old French and Latin. This word comes ultimately from Late Latin clēricus ‘a priest, clergyman, cleric’ and, more generally, ‘a learned man’ (cf. Sp. clérigo ‘clergyman, priest’). In some dialects of English, this word came to be pronounced with a broad a sound, and in those dialects, the spelling changed from clerk to clark. This variant has not made it into modern Standard English, but it survives in the last name Clark. Another example of this sound (and spelling) change is found in the word varsity [ˈvɑɹsəti], which is a clipping of the word university [ˌjunəˈvɜɹsəti]. (In the UK, varsity is a now dated variant of the word university; in the US, it means ‘a sports team which represents a university or college’, COED.) An example of sound change without the spelling change is found in the word derby, which in the UK is pronounced [ˈdɑː.bi] with a broad a (and the r is no longer pronounced in standard British English; in North America, however, derby is pronounced [ˈdɜɹbi].)
Sp. sargento is without a doubt also a loanword from French, just like Eng. sergeant. The DCEH source says that sargento is not attested until the late 16th century, with the already mentioned military sense that the word had in French at the time. But DCEH also mentions that the feminine word sergenta (with an e) is present in Gonzalo de Berceo’s 13th century writings, with one of the meanings that the French word had at the time, namely ‘female servant’, synonymous with sirvienta. According to the DLE, the word sergenta (with an e) is not obsolete in modern Spanish, though very few Spanish speakers have probably heard of it since it has a very rare and specialized meaning, namely ‘lay female member of the religious Order of St. James’. Note that there is no equivalent masculine form sergento (with an e) in this dictionary, though this term (usually with the unadapted forms sergent or sergente) was indeed used in medieval times to refer to some of the male members of this same religious-military order.[ii] Berceo’s 13th century writings were written in Riojan Romance. Rioja was then part of Navarre, on the border of Castile, and the Romance spoken there was closer to eastern (Aragonese) Romance varieties than to Castilian (cf. Part I, Chapter 9). Riojan Romance was known among other things for its Gallicisms or French loanwords.
But it turns out that variants of the word sargento are quite well attested in Old Castilian Spanish since the 13th century, and not just in the single feminine form found in Berceo’s writing mentioned in DCEH. A search of Old Spanish texts reveals that variants of this word are found in many 13th century texts, including Bible translations, in which the sense seems to be servants, though seemingly not ordinary ones, mostly servants of kings, often military ones. One Bible translation, for instance, mentions the ‘sargentes de Salomon en Jerusalem’ and ‘sargentes del Rey’. Among the variants we find singular sergent, sergento, sargent, and plural sergentes and sargentes.
Thus, a search in the Old Spanish Textual Archive that contains a variety of writings in Old Spanish, reveals 107 instances of this word in 22 different texts, all of which are in the masculine gender. It appears, for instance, in Fazienda de ultramar (c. 1220), with one example, sergent; in Libro de Alexandre (1221), with one example, sergente; in a 13th century Bible translation, with 21 examples, 1 sargent, 6 sergent, 7 sergentes, and 7 sargentes (Biblia romanceada prealfonsí, IJ8, c. 1250); and, finally, in the famous 13th century work General estoria (c. 1270), with 25 examples of this lexeme, always with e (2 sergent, 4 sergente, and 19 sergentes).[iii] Curiously, it seems that those examples in which this word has an a as opposed to an e come from Aragonese, not Castilian, authors, even though they are written in Castilian. In the same corpus, there are also four examples of the feminine form of this word, all with an e and all in the plural, i.e. sergentas. Four of them are from General estoria.
Today, the word sargento is pronounced [sar.ˈxen̪.t̪o] but at the time the word was borrowed, the letter 〈g〉 represented the sound [ʒ] before 〈e〉, the same sound the word has in French to this day. The letter 〈j〉 also had that sound in Spanish then, in all contexts, just like it does in French, also in every context. The sound [ʒ], a voiced alveopalatal fricative sound, changed first to its voiceless counterpart [ʃ] (the sound of English 〈sh〉 in sheep) and later it changed to the velar voiceless fricative sound [x] or Spanish “jota” (cf. Part I, Chapters 7, 10).
If Sp. sargento is a loan from Fr. sergent, it is not at all clear why this word has an 〈a〉 in the first syllable instead of an 〈e〉, that is, why the Spanish word is not *sergento anymore, as most of the earliest examples of this word in old texts. The DLE tells us that Sp. sargento comes from the word sargente, but strangely enough, it does not tell us what language or dialect this word is supposed to come from, a very unusual omission.[iv] It is quite possible that the early attestations of this word that have an a as opposed to an e may have Navarro-Aragonese influence. This relates nicely to the fact that although the main Italian word for ‘sergeant’ is sergente, with an e, there is a (non-standard) variant sargente, with an a. This is curious because Aragon had a close relationship with Italy between 1282 and 1860 and there may be a connection here, though it is not clear what the connection is.[v] Of course, there are other possible reasons as to why Modern Spanish sargento has an a. It could, for instance, be due to vowel dissimilation or else to the analogy with the word argento, the literary word for plata ‘silver’, from Lat. argentum ‘silver’. But, as we just saw, already in the 13th century we find examples of this word with an a in the first syllable and they appear in texts with possible Aragonese influence.
Finally, note that Spanish also has a feminine word sargenta (with an a), which is derived from the masculine word sargento. Sp. sargenta is not just the feminine form of sargento, that is, it does not mean ‘female sergeant’, and it has its own entry in the dictionary, different from the entry for sargento. In modern times there are female sergeants in the militaries of Spanish-speaking countries, but they are known as sargento, for the word sargento is considered to be a common gender noun, applicable to both men and women, so that you can say el sargento ‘the male sergeant’ or la sargento ‘the female sergeant’. Rather, the word sargenta has a variety of meanings, mostly used to refer to women associated with a (male) sargeant or that have characteristics that are reminiscent of those of a (male) sergeant. According to the Academies’ dictionary, the noun sargenta has the following five different senses:
(1) layperson of the military Order of Santiago [i.e. it is a synonym of the word sergenta (with an e) that we just saw],
(2) halberd [Sp. alabarda] that used to be worn by sergeants
(3) (pejorative, colloquial) a corpulent, manly, and tough woman
(4) (pejorative, colloquial) authoritarian woman
(5) (colloquial, little used [today]) a sergeant’s woman/wife (DLE).
 The word serjeant is used in the UK as ‘As a title borne by a lawyer’ (OED). This sense (#6) has four subsenses.
 In the original: religiosa lega de la Orden de Santiago (DLE). The Order of Santiago or Order of St. James of the Sword is a medieval religious and military order founded in the 12th century. It was named after Santiago ‘Saint James’ patron saint of Spain. The original purpose of the order was to protect pilgrims following the Way of Saint James (Sp. Camino de Santiago) to and from Santiago, in Galicia (northwestern Spain), where the apostle was thought to be buried. This order still exists in Spain, in a much different form, under the protection of the Spanish crown.
 The name of the country Argentina is derived from this word. Note also that the chemical symbol for silver is Ag, an abbreviation of Lat. argentum.
 The original has: ‘sargenta De sargento; en acep. 1, de sergenta. 1. f. Religiosa lega de la Orden de Santiago. 2. f. Alabarda que llevaba el sargento. 3. f. despect. coloq. Mujer corpulenta, hombruna y de dura condición. 4. f. despect. coloq. Mujer autoritaria. 5. f. coloq. p. us. Mujer del sargento.’ (DLE).
[i] Source: (left) This file was derived from: Army-USA-OR-05.svg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92091200; (right) By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37761696 (2021.01.14)
[ii] Cf. “La estructura de poder en la Orden de Santiago, siglos XII-XIV”, by José Vicente Matellanes Merchán, in En la España Medieval 23:293-319 (2000) ISSN: 0214-3038.
[iv] On Jan. 7, 2021, the online edition of the DLE has: ‘sargento De sargente.’, without specifying what language this sargente was in. It is extremely rare for the DLE not to give the language that a source word comes from.