The Soft Sound of C

By Maeve Maddox

Shakespeare called z an “unnecessary” letter, but the letter c is probably a better candidate for the title.

In modern English, c is a substitute letter, a stand-in symbol for two English sounds that have distinctive letters to represent them. These sounds are /k/ and /s/, as in cat and cent.

C wasn’t always a mere substitute for the letters k and s. In Old English, c was the only symbol for the sound /k/. A note in the OED explains what happened:

When the Roman alphabet was introduced into Britain, C had only the sound /k/ ; and this value of the letter has been retained by all the insular Celts: in Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, C, c, is still only = /k/ . The Old English or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ writing was learned from the Celts, apparently of Ireland; hence C, c, in Old English, was also originally = /k/ : the words kin, break, broken, thick, seek, were in Old English written cyn, brecan, brocen, þicc, séoc.

In OE, as in Modern English, the letter s represented the sounds /s/ and /z/.

Before the end of the OE period, c became palatalized before e and i. Meanwhile, changes were going on in French spelling and pronunciation. Among other things, French adopted the letter k to represent the sound /k/ in some words. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 spelled more than political disaster. The Norman scribes who ousted their English counterparts were accustomed to Latin and French spelling conventions. When the Normans invaded England, English spelling went from consistent to what it is today.

After the Conquest, c kept the /k/ sound in some English words like candle, cliff, corn, and crop, but in others, the sound /k/ was spelled with the new letter k, as in king, break, and seek.

Rule: In modern English, when the letter c occurs before the letters i, e, or y, it represents its “soft” sound: /s/.

Here are some examples:

C followed by e
accept (The first c in accept stands for the sound /k/; the second c stands for /s/.)
ace
acetate
celebrity
cell
incense
fence

C followed by i
acid
cider
cite
citrus

C followed by y
cyborg
piracy
bouncy
cycle
icy
infancy

If you find exceptions to the rule, please share them.

Note: This stated rule applies to the single letter c, not to letter combinations like ch, tch, or cious.

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6 Responses to “The Soft Sound of C”

  • Elysia Brenner

    Interesting post; thank you! Do you happen to know why C is also pronounced differently before E and I in Latin languages like Spanish and Italian? Is there a connection?

  • Dale A. Wood

    The letter “c” is essential in English and in German in these combinations of consonants that usually form one sound:
    { ch, chl, chr, chs, clr, cr, sch, schl, schr } and maybe a few more.

    One way of looking at it is that otherwise, we would have a lot of words that contain combinations like “kh” and look positively Slavic (e.g. Khruschev).
    In German, words that start with “c” are rather uncommon, except that there is a vast disliking of the “kh” combination. Hence, there are German words that start with “ch” such as “Chemie” = “chemistry”.
    On the other hand, words like “Kalium” are fine in German. That is the word for potassium, and this is the source of the letter “K” as the chemical symbol for postassium. “Na” for sodium also comes from a German word: “Natrium”. Hence that is where the symbol NaCl for table salt comes from. KOH is potassium hydroxide, a powerful alkali.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “In modern English, when the letter c occurs before the letters i, e, or y, it represents its ‘soft’ sound.”
    Likewise, the letter “g” before e, i, or y generally has the ‘soft g’ sound, especially at the beginning of a word. You can find lots of exceptions to this, but this practice holds ‘in general’. Consider these example words with the “soft g” at the beginning:
    { gel, gem, genie, genius, genial, geode, geography, Geoffrey, Gerry }
    { giant, giga, gigantic, gin, Ginnie**, giraffe, gist }
    There is some disagreement about the pronunciation of “giga”, but I go with “Doc Brown” of BACK TO THE FUTURE: “1.21 jiggawatts!”
    I tend to use the same pronunciation with gigabits, gigabytes, gigavolts, gigajoules, etc.
    { gyrate, gyroscope, Gypsie }
    **Ginnie is a nickname for a woman or girl named “Virginia”.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Maeve, it is interesting that you say that the Old English style of writing orginated with the Celts of the British Isles, probably Ireland.
    So, are you saying that the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes were illiterate? So, they did not have a form of writing of their own?
    If they had a form of writing, I can see little reason for them to have abandoned it.
    The Anglo-Saxon-Jutes only adopted a few words from the Celts. In fact, they adopted a lot more words from the Danes who invaded northern England and southern Scotland much later on. Among the words that came from the Danes were some real surprises: they, them, their, theirs – all of the third-person plural pronouns.
    Then, there are lots more Danish nouns such as sky, ski, etc., that were brought into English.
    D.A.W.

  • Peter Buxton

    The word ‘Celt’ can be pronounced either ‘kelt’ or ‘selt’. For the people, Celts, it is generally (but not always) pronounced ‘kelts’; the prehistoric tool, celt, is always pronounced ‘selt.’ As an adjective, like in ‘Celtic tradition’, it would normally be pronounced with a ‘k’. For the football club, Glasgow Celtic, it’s pronounced with an ‘s’.

  • venqax

    It is surprising how many people don’t know this rule and think that different pronunciations of C are just randomly distributed and are great examples of how chaotic and English spelling is. There is also a general rule that Cs followed by vowel combinations like ious, ia, ean, ie, are pronounced like SHs—precious, ocean, special, species (yes, speeSHeez) It’s also easy to point out that Cs followed by another consonant are pronounced K. That handily explains why a given CC combination goes KS or K depending on the following vowel: access vs.account. So that’s why e.g., flaKSid, (not flasid), aKSessory, aKSelerate.

    Maeve, as for your question about exceptions I’d raid the article for Celts (maybe your clever intention!). I have always maintained that if you are going to spell it that way, then Seltic—like the basketball team– is the proper pronunciation for the very reason explained so well in your article. (Celt/ic is not a Celtic word, so the argument that Cs in Celtic languages are always hard doesn’t pass go.)

    I’ve also always winced at the British spelling of sceptic. Normally, that would be an unpleasant though necessary tank buried in a back yard.

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