John Larrysson Column: The Letter C is Useless

The letter C has no sound of its own; it represents either a k-sound or an s-sound and sometimes even a ch-sound /tʃ/. I have seen student worksheets for the alphabet with /s/, /k/ and /c/. The first two notations represent the s-sound and the k-sound respectively. However the letter C has no sound of its own and the notation /c/ is meaningless nonsense.

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Originally there was no letter C. In ancient history, a people called the Etruscans changed the letter G into a C to fit their language. Eventually the Romans copied them and later the letter C got passed on into English. In the Roman language, Latin, the letter C was only used to represent /k/, in Latin, Caesar was pronounced like Kaiser and so forth. In the old British language, Welsh, there is no K and C is used only for /k/. In Old English, and Latin, the letter C was also only used to represent /k/. However after the 1066 invasion of England, English words borrowed from French or Latin often used a letter C for /s/. Some older English words got respelled according to this new pattern. Words that used to be spelled with a C for /k/ got respelled with the letter K. For example: king in Old English was cyning, take was tacan and break was brecan.1

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Most words where the letter C makes a /s/ are from (Norman) French. For example2: celery (céleri), circle (cercle), cider (cidre) and city (cité). Some English words spelt with an S for /s/ were sometimes respelled with C for /s/ to match the spelling pattern for French words. Examples3 include, twice (twies), ice (is) and mice (mys). In these words the letter after the C was most often the vowels I or E.

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Words in which a soft C is followed by the letter Y are often borrowed from Latin. For example4: cycle (cyclus), cyst (cystis) and cylinder (cylindrus). There are many words ending in -cy. They use the abstract noun-suffix of quality / to have the property of, from the Latin suffix -cia. For example: To have a chaplaincy is to have the job of a chaplain (or the place where a chaplain works). To have a bankruptcy is to not be able to pay one's debts. To have literacy is to be able to read and write.

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The letter C is usually pronounced /s/ when in front of the vowels I, E or Y in words of French or Latin origin. Words like soccer5 are not of such an ancient origin. I will cover the SC combination next week. C can also be pronounced with a ch-sound, a sh-sound or even be silent; these situations will be covered the following week. Double-C will be covered in the week after that.

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1. More examples: broken (brocen), kin (cyn), rock (rocc), think (thicce), seek (seoc)

2. For simplicity the French spelling is in brackets.

3. For simplicity the Old English spelling is in brackets.

4. For simplicity the Latin spelling is in brackets.

5. In this case, the double c denotes a /k/.

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.

Other Phonics Articles:

The letter B

The aw-sound

The Schwa Sound

The Magic-e

The Letter A a

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