Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Secret Origins: C

Yes, it's that time of week again. New followers: hi! Every Wednesday I do etymology or, like today, the origins of letters in the English alphabet. Why? ...

Let's just get started, shall we?

C is a tricky letter. It can be pronounced “kuh” as in car or “suh” as in census. Often times it is affected by the letter following it; a, o and u tend to make a hard sound, e, i and y usually soft (at least in English; don’t make me get into other languages). When combined with h, it becomes something else entirely, perhaps a whole other post. This information comes from from the New Students Reference Work. And, you know. Sounding it out myself. Further craziness, it can be silent. You don’t hear the c sound in sclera, muscle or indict. I think that’s more of an evolutionary spelling than part of its pronunciation, though.

You can look at it in the Alphabet history I’ve used with the past two letters, but you see C’s origin is derived from G. I’ll get more into G, gamma, gimmel et al. when I get to it, but I suppose Γ (capital letter gamma) could be considered a C made at an angle.

The question becomes where did c break away from gamma and become its own letter? It seems that while the other languages had K, S and Q, C doesn’t show up anywhere in the history of the Latin alphabet. That’s because unlike most letters, it comes from somewhere else.

C formed after the Romans introduced their Latin alphabet to the British Isles. In the Old English Period (seventh to twelfth centuries CE), writing was influenced by both the Romans and the Irish Celts. In the Irish language (yes, they have a language of their own, not English), they do not have several letters, including k and q. Also in the Irish languages, consonants have different pronunciations depending on the vowel that follows (a, o and u are broad, e and i are slender…hm. Seems familiar.). 

From the Irish, the Old English got to pronouncing C as hard and soft (called palatizing) and obviously it had to separate from gamma. And so, with much effort, that is how C is related to G and how it became its own letter because of Irish influence.

Thanks to these sources:
The New Student’s Reference Work – C Chicago: F. E. Compton and Co. 1914.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Cambridge University Press.


  1. It makes me all kinds of happy that you worked in a reference to Irish. :) My personal area of Celtic interest is Scots Gaelic, but the two versions of Gaelic sound the same, even if they are spelt differently.

    Yay for C!

  2. Hi to you too, new follower here. I can see why you say you analyse everything to death, lol. I learnt a few things from the post though.


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