Language evolves. Spoken language evolves faster than written language, but the written language is easier to track as it leaves behind physical artifacts.

The third letter of our alphabet is the problematic C, which could be soft as in ‘nice’ or hard like ‘cat’ or I don’t know what you call the sound at the beginning of ‘chat.’ This ambiguity has frustrated spellers of English across generations. Many years ago I looked into the history of the letter C in order to satisfy one kid’s curiosity that mirrored my own. I learned about the Phonecian alphabet which pre-dated our own roman script, where the pre-cursor to our letter C sounded like a hard-G.

From the illustration above, you can see that evolution took place differently for Greek and Cyrillic. Today in the same letter from the Cyrillic alphabet looks like this: Г and wikipedia tells me that it sounds like “Ge.” If only we had kept this letter as is, and adopted K and S more aggressively as spoken language drifted, we would have an easier time spelling words in modern English. Although we would still have the challenging relationship between “public” and “publicity” where the written form illustrates the relationship between noun and verb. The solution, of course, is that we should modify the spelling to “publik,” then we’ll need to all start saying “publikity” and everything would be easier to spell.

I was delighted to find the visualization above (via @larsyencken) which illustrates the evolution of various alphabets that includes Greek and Cyrillic, and as the Roman script we use for English. Bill Rankin at Radical Cartography describes this striking visualization which includes a geographic map as a “relatively simply exercise” — simple for him! I’m so glad he took a moment from his busy life to put it together.

One thought on “the evolution of the letter C

  1. The evolution of alphabets is a favorite topic of mine. If you want to read a very convincing defense of the letter C (and all of the other wacky idiosyncrasies of English orthography), I highly recommend Geoffrey Sampson’s “Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction”.

    The short version: our irregular spelling encodes all kinds of metadata beyond just the pronunciation of the word. For one, it tells you the word’s language of origin (e.g. Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, Norse, or any of the many other languages we’ve borrowed from). This lets us attach different cultural connotations to words that are essentially synonyms: e.g. the informal “teaching” vs. the much more formal “pedagogy” (“car” vs. “automobile”, etc.). The result: English is capable of encoding a lot of rich, nuanced information into short sentences. Languages that lack those extra layers simply need more words to say the same things, if they’re capable of saying them at all. (Another language/writing pair that is similar to English in this way is Japanese, with its fiendishly complex array of syllabaries and logograms, many of which have multiple meanings and pronunciations depending on context… resulting in nuance a-plenty!)

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