Confusing Complex C

Published 11th April 2011
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Confusing Complex C

The letter ‘C’ represents three distinct sounds, the hard, the soft and the silent:

  1. The hard C often precedes the non-front vowels ‹a›, ‹o› and ‹u›. This version is always pronounced as ‹k›. Examples include class, castle, disc, local, comic, public, tragic, cup.
    2. The soft version is properly called a whistling and pronounced as ‹s›. It is typically before ‹e›, ‹i› and ‹y›, like in silence, city, cent, except, peace, license.
    3. The C can also be silent, as in the words indict or muscle.

There are very few exceptions to the above rules, not to mention foreign words which have been borrowed into English. One notable exception is ‘Celt’ [kelt], describing e.g. the Irish and Scots.

Also, C can appear next to H and signify a new sound (say “cheese”), or not (say “chorus”). When the ‹h› is there between a ‹c› and a “soft vowel”, then the hard [k] sound is needed, e.g. architecture, ache, archive, monarchy, psychiatric, chemical.


But sometimes the “ch” is pronounced as [sh], especially in words of foreign origin e.g. in champagne, moustache, cache, niche, chic, machine.

Why does this letter possess so many phonetic values? Well, the long and messy history of the letter may help to explain:

The letters ‹c› and ‹g› have evolved as the same letter for much of their history.
In the predecessors and relatives of the Latin alphabet, the third letter is used for the [g] sound. First look at the Phoenician alphabet: aleph, beth, gimel, daleth, … . The Semites named this letter gimel, meaning “camel,” and used it to indicate the sound roughly equivalent to our present-day [g] .
The Greek alphabet starts alpha, beta, gamma, delta, …

Later, the Etruscan alphabet, used by the people who inhabited what is now Italy, adopted the Greek “gamma” to represent the [k] or hard sound but used a different character, which eventually turned from facing left to right and became the letter C in Classical Latin.

The K sound could be represented by the < symbol, which the Romans ended up writing in its C shape. That left them with no symbol for their G sound, so a new letter was invented. That’s why the letter G looks like a C with a bit of ornamentation on it.

The letter C has been employed in advertisement and marketing for many decades. It is said that Coca-Cola’s first logo from 1886 imitates a person’s elegant signature, thus conveying quality and trustworthiness, suggesting attraction or advancement.



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