> My five year old son asks:
> Why did they invent the letter C, when it makes the sounds of K and S?

It sure does make it tough to play “I Spy.” In seeking an answer to this question, I first searched google and found Jakob Nielsen Declares the Letter “C” Unusable. A great article, but not exactly what I was looking for. Then I chanced to read danah’s capitalization rules where Andrew Cone had left a link to an interesting discussion.

Only on the internet could I fulfill such random curiosity with such convenience. While waiting for paper mache to dry I submitted the question to the “Ask A Linguist” list.

In case anyone else is curious, I’ve compiled a few highlights from the responses I received….


The short answer

Originally, C spelled the sound /g/. But, with some help from the Etruscans, the Romans got into a bit of a tangle here, and they wound up using C to spell both the sound /g/ and the sound /k/, while they hardly used the letter K at all. Eventually, realizing this was a bad idea, they invented a new letter, G, to spell the sound /g/, and they then used C exclusively to spell the sound /k/.

This was the system borrowed from the Romans by the Anglo-Saxons. Originally C spelled only /k/ in Old English. But then the pronunciation of English changed. (Larry Trask)

Another important consideration

“‘c’ is often used (though not always) for roots whose pronunciation alternates between [s] and [k]. think of ‘public’ vs. ‘publicity’. If we spelled the first ‘publik’ and the second ‘publisity’ we wouldn’t be able to see the relationship between the two words as easily.” (Susan Fisher)

A longer story
(this might make a good children’s book if it had pictures)

“That’s a very good question, and the answer is that it didn’t always make those sounds. See, the language we speak has changed over the centuries, as all languages do. And writing — which is different from talking, changes too, though much more slowly.

The letter C wasn’t invented for English. It was invented several thousand years ago to write down the sounds of Phoenician, a language related to Hebrew and Arabic. At the time, the letter was called “gamel” or something like that, which means ‘camel’ (see the C?). It represented the G sound (the letter G was invented later, by the Romans).

Later on the Greeks started using the Phoenician alphabet and they used the letter to represent the G sound, too. Not having any camels, they called it “gamma”; the K sound was represented by the letter K, called “kappa”. And later still, people in Italy used it, but they didn’t have a G sound, so they used it for the K sound.

The Romans eventually wound up using this alphabet, with the letter C standing for the K sound, but they did have a G sound, so they put a little jot on the C and made it a G (they didn’t use the letter K, except for words they borrowed from Greek).” (John Lawler)

“In the Norman French era, “C” was pronounced “S” before the letters “I,E,(Y)”, and otherwise “K”, After William the Conquerer captured England in 1066, English borrowed a lot of French words with French spellings, so “C” became a letter with two sounds. English also had words like “king, keep” where /k/ was pronounced before /e,i/, so the Greek letter “K” was reintroduced to keep things straight (more or less).” (Elizabeth J. Pyatt)

Many thanks to those fine linguists who helped me understand the interesting history of the letter C, and it’s relatives K and G:
Susan Fischer, NTID/RIT
John Lawler, U Michigan Linguistics Dept
Herb Stahlke, Ball State University
Larry Trask, University of Sussex
Mike Hammond
Elizabeth J. Pyatt, Ph.D., Penn State University
Anthea Fraser GUPTA,University of Leeds

My original question and all follow-up answers are archived at “Ask A Linguist”

I still wonder… how do we know how people pronounced words thousands of years ago? were there ancient linguists who recorded their observations?

14 thoughts on “the history of the letter ‘C’

  1. In Italian, “c” is pronounced [ʧ] (English “ch”) before “e”, “i”, and “y”, and [k] before any other letter — including “h”, which is otherwise silent.

    This means that “ce” would be pronounced [ʧɛ], and “che” is pronounced [kɛ]. This is the opposite of English, and took us a while to get used to last month while we were in Italy.

    (There isn’t actually an Italian word “ce”, but there is a “che”.)

  2. Actually, the rule for Italian is easy to remember. Before “i” or “e” (soft vowels) it’s the English “ch” sound, and before “a” “o” or “u” (hard vowels) it’s the English “k” sound. To get the English “ch” sound before a hard vowel, you throw an “i” after the “c” — like “ciao”. To get the “k” sound before a soft vowel, you throw an “h” in — like “chianti”. There’s one quirk: if there’s an “s” before the “c”, it’s an English “sh” sound if it’s followed by a soft vowel, and an English “sk” if it’s followed by a hard vowel — “prosciutto” and “scampi”.

    This is the same for “g” (“spaghetti”, “Giovanni”, “gorgonzola” etc.). There’s no “s” quirk with “g”, but there is an “l” quirk: before a soft vowel, “gl” is pronounced sort of like an English “y” sound.

    In Lojban, the “c” stands for the English “sh” sound.

    And if your son decides that English spelling is stupid (and it is), have him check out Shavian, an alternate phonetic alphabet for English commissioned by George Bernard Shaw.

  3. Thanks for the info on the letter C . Why ids it so hard to find information on the developement of letters on the net. Any help would be appriciated?

  4. Thanks for the letter “c” information. I’ve been searching for “k,” and I hadn’t thought to look for close relatives in my search until I found your post.

  5. can u please clarify how would the word “cueller” be pronounced? will it k sound or s sound? and why?

  6. Is there a rule for when to spell a word with a K and when to use the hard letter C? thanks for the help.

  7. Why do we have the differnece in pronouncing ‘cha’
    like in ‘character’ we have the sound ‘ka’ while when we write ‘champion’ we use ‘cha’ itself can anyone give me proper explanation for this.
    if so please mail me at michaeldjoan@gmail.com

  8. Thank you for this article. I have wondered the same thing many times in my life. Very helpful. :-)

  9. Pingback: the evolution of the letter C | the evolving ultrasaurus

  10. the original most perfect alphabet is ellene .. [ greek is a nickname for it] the capital letters are different than the small letters making it very difficult for most today. when schools and libraries were burned by priests in rome it was dark ages. c was a mistake and left this way by gypsies that burned schools and libraries. the new testament was written in the simplest form of it. we have interlinears available cbd bookstore Peabody ma.

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