Hard and soft C

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In the Latin-based orthographies of many European languages (including English), a distinction between hard and soft ⟨c⟩ occurs in which ⟨c⟩ represents two distinct phonemes. The sound of a hard ⟨c⟩ (which often precedes the non-front vowels ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩ and ⟨u⟩) is that of the voiceless velar stop, [k] (as in car) while the sound of a soft ⟨c⟩ (typically before ⟨e⟩, ⟨i⟩ and ⟨y⟩), depending on language, may be a fricative or affricate. In English, the sound of soft ⟨c⟩ is /s/ (as in "citrus").

There was no soft ⟨c⟩ in classical Latin, where it was always pronounced as /k/. Modern English pronunciation of early Latin often uses /s/ instead, as with Caesar "KYE-sahr" becoming "SEE-zer".[1]


This alternation has its origins in a historical palatalization of /k/ which took place in Late Latin, and led to a change in the pronunciation of the sound [k] before the front vowels [e] and [i].[2][3] Later, other languages not descended from Latin, such as English, inherited this feature as an orthographic convention.


General overview

In English orthography, the pronunciation of hard ⟨c⟩ is /k/ and of soft ⟨c⟩ is /s/. Yod-coalescence has altered instances of /sj/ particularly in unstressed syllables to /ʃ/ in most varieties of English affecting words such as ocean, logician and magician. Generally, the soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation occurs before ⟨i e y⟩; it also occurs before ⟨ae⟩ and ⟨oe⟩ in a number of Greek and Latin loanwords (such as coelacanth, caecum, caesar). The hard ⟨c⟩ pronunciation occurs everywhere else[4] except in the letter combinations ⟨sc⟩, ⟨ch⟩, and ⟨sch⟩ which have distinct pronunciation rules. Double ⟨cc⟩ generally represents /ks/ before ⟨i e y⟩, as in accident, succeed, and coccyx.

There are exceptions to the general rules of hard and soft ⟨c⟩:

  • The ⟨c⟩ in the words Celt and Celtic was traditionally soft but since the late 19th century the hard pronunciation has also been recognized in conscious imitation of the classical Latin pronunciation of Celtae, see Pronunciation of Celtic. Welsh and Gaelic loanwords in English which retain their native spelling, such as ceilidh, cistvaen (alternatively spelled ⟨kistvaen⟩) or Cymric are also pronounced hard.
  • The ⟨c⟩ is hard in a handful of words like arcing, synced/syncing, chicer (/ʃiːkər/), and Quebecer (alternatively spelled ⟨Quebecker⟩) that involve a word normally spelled with a final ⟨c⟩ followed by an affix starting with ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩; soccer and recce also have a hard ⟨c⟩.
  • The ⟨sc⟩ in sceptic, and its derivatives such as sceptical and scepticism, represents /sk/. These words are alternative spellings to ⟨skeptical⟩ and ⟨skepticism⟩, respectively.
  • The ⟨cc⟩ of flaccid now sometimes represents a single soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation /ˈflæsɪd/, which is a simplification of usual /ˈflæksɪd/.
  • The ⟨c⟩ is silent before ⟨t⟩ in indict and its derivatives such as indictment, in the name of the U.S. state Connecticut, and in some pronunciations of Arctic and Antarctic.
  • In a few cases such as facade and limacon, a soft ⟨c⟩ appears before ⟨a o u⟩ and is optionally indicated to be soft by means of attaching a cedilla to its bottom, giving façade, limaçon.

A silent ⟨e⟩ can occur after ⟨c⟩ at the end of a word or component root word part of a larger word. The ⟨e⟩ can serve a marking function indicating that the preceding ⟨c⟩ is soft as in dance and enhancement. The silent ⟨e⟩ often additionally indicates that the vowel before ⟨c⟩ is a long vowel, as in rice, mace, and pacesetter.

When adding suffixes with ⟨i e y⟩ (such as -ed, -ing, -er, -est, -ism, -ist, -y, and -ie) to root words ending in ⟨ce⟩, the final ⟨e⟩ of the root word is often dropped and the root word retains the soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation as in danced, dancing, and dancer from dance . The suffixes -ify and -ise/-ize can be added to most nouns and adjectives to form new verbs. The pronunciation of ⟨c⟩ in newly coined words using these suffixes is not always clear. The digraph ⟨ck⟩ may be used to retain the hard ⟨c⟩ pronunciation in inflections and derivatives of a word such as trafficking from the verb traffic.

There are several cases in English in which hard and soft ⟨c⟩ alternate with the addition of suffixes as in critic/criticism and electric/electricity (electrician has a soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation of /ʃ/ because of yod-coalescence).

Letter combinations

A number of two-letter combinations or digraphs follow distinct pronunciation patterns and don't follow the hard/soft distinction of ⟨c⟩. For example, ⟨ch⟩ may represent /tʃ/ (as in chicken), /ʃ/ (as in chef), or /k/ (as in choir). Other letter combinations that don't follow the paradigm include ⟨cz⟩, ⟨sc⟩, ⟨cs⟩, ⟨tch⟩, ⟨sch⟩, and ⟨tsch⟩. These come primarily from loanwords.

Besides a few examples (recce, soccer, Speccy), ⟨cc⟩ fits neatly with the regular rules of ⟨c⟩: Before ⟨i e y⟩, the second ⟨c⟩ is soft while the first is hard. Words such as accept and success are pronounced with /ks/ and words such as succumb and accommodate are pronounced with /k/. Exceptions include loanwords from Italian such as cappuccino with /tʃ/ for ⟨cc⟩.

Many placenames and other proper nouns with -cester (from Old English ceaster, meaning Roman station or walled town) are pronounced with /stər/ such as Worcester (/ˈwʊstər/), Gloucester (/ˈɡlɒstər/ or /ˈɡlɔːstər/), and Leicester (/ˈlɛstər/). The /s/ pronunciation occurs as a combination of a historically soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation and historical elision of the first vowel of the suffix.

Italian loanwords

The original spellings and pronunciations of Italian loanwords have mostly been kept. Many English words that have been borrowed from Italian follow a distinct set of pronunciation rules corresponding to those in Italian. The Italian soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation is /tʃ/ (as in cello and ciao), while the hard ⟨c⟩ is the same as in English. Italian orthography uses ⟨ch⟩ to indicate a hard pronunciation before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩, analogous to English using ⟨k⟩ (as in kill and keep) and ⟨qu⟩ (as in mosquito and queue).

In addition to hard and soft ⟨c⟩, the digraph ⟨sc⟩ represents /ʃ/ when followed by ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩ (as in crescendo and fascia). Meanwhile, ⟨sch⟩ in Italian represents /sk/, not /ʃ/, but English-speakers commonly mispronounce it as /ʃ/ due to familiarity with the German pronunciation. Italian uses ⟨cc⟩ to indicate the gemination of /kk/ before ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨u⟩ or /ttʃ/ before ⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩. English does not usually geminate consonants and therefore loanwords with soft ⟨cc⟩ are pronounced with /tʃ/ as with cappuccino, pronounced /ˌkæpəˈtʃinoʊ/.

Suffixation issues

Rarely, the use of unusual suffixed forms to create neologisms occurs. For example, the words sac and bloc are both standard words but adding -iness or -ism (both productive affixes in English) would create spellings that seem to indicate soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciations. (saciness and blocism). Potential remedies include altering the spelling to sackiness and blockism, though no standard conventions exist.

Use of ⟨k⟩

Sometimes ⟨k⟩ replaces ⟨c⟩, ⟨ck⟩, or ⟨qu⟩, as a trope for giving words a hard-edged or whimsical feel. Examples include the Mortal Kombat franchise and product names such as Kool-Aid and Nesquik. More intensely, this use of ⟨k⟩ has also been used to give extremist or racist connotations. Examples include Amerika or Amerikkka (where the ⟨k⟩ is reminiscent of German and the totalitarian Nazi regime as well as the racist Ku Klux Klan).

Other languages

All modern Romance languages make the hard/soft distinction with ⟨c⟩,[2] except a few that have undergone spelling reforms such as Ladino and Haitian Creole. Some non-Romance languages like German, Danish and Dutch use ⟨c⟩ in loanwords and also make this distinction.[5] The soft ⟨c⟩ pronunciation, which occurs before ⟨i⟩, ⟨e⟩ and ⟨y⟩,[6] is:

  1. /tʃ/ in Italian[7] and Romanian;
  2. /s/ in English, French,[3] Portuguese,[8] Catalan,[9] Latin American Spanish,[3] Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages
  3. /θ/ in European Spanish.[3]
  4. /ts/ in words loaned into German. This was also the pronunciation in Old Spanish, Old French, and other historical languages where it is now pronounced /s/.

The hard ⟨c⟩ occurs in all other positions and represents /k/ in all these aforementioned languages.

A number of orthographies don't make a hard/soft distinction. The ⟨c⟩ is always hard in Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic – but is always soft in Slavic languages, Hungarian, and the Hanyu Pinyin transcription system of Mandarin Chinese, where it represents /ts/ or /tsʰ/. In Italian[7] and Romanian,[10] the orthographic convention for representing /k/ before front vowels is to add ⟨h⟩ (Italian chiaro, [ˈkjaro] 'clear'). ⟨qu⟩ is used to accomplish the same purpose in Catalan,[9] Portuguese,[8] Spanish,[2] and French.

In French,[11] Catalan,[9] Portuguese,[8] and Old Spanish a cedilla is used to indicate a soft /s/ pronunciation when it would otherwise seem to be hard. (French garçon, [ɡaʁˈsɔ̃], 'boy'; Portuguese coração, [koɾaˈsɐ̃w̃], 'heart'; Catalan caçar, [kəˈsa], 'to hunt'). Spanish is similar, though ⟨z⟩ is used instead of ⟨ç⟩ (e.g. corazón [koɾaˈθon] 'heart').[2]

Swedish has a similar phenomenon with hard and soft ⟨k⟩: this results from a similar historical palatalization development. Soft ⟨k⟩ is typically a palatal [ç] or an alveolo-palatal [ɕ], and occurs before not only ⟨i⟩, ⟨e⟩ and ⟨y⟩, but also ⟨j⟩, ⟨ä⟩, and ⟨ö⟩. Another similar system with hard and soft ⟨k⟩ is found in Faroese with the hard ⟨k⟩ being /kʰ/ and the soft being /t͡ʃʰ/.

See also



  • Arnaud, Leonard E. (1945), "Teaching the Pronunciation of "C" and "G" and the Spanish Diphthongs", The Modern Language Journal, 29 (1): 37–39, doi:10.2307/318102, JSTOR 318102 
  • Emerson, Ralph H. (1997), "English Spelling and Its Relation to Sound", American Speech, 72 (3): 260–288, doi:10.2307/455654, JSTOR 455654 
  • Hall, Robert, Jr. (1944), "Italian Phonemes and Orthography", Italica, 21 (2): 72–82, doi:10.2307/475860, JSTOR 475860 
  • Mateus, Maria Helena; d'Andrade, Ernesto (2000), The Phonology of Portuguese, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-823581-X 
  • Tranel, Bernard (1987), The sounds of French, Cambridge university press 
  • Venezky, Richard L. (1970), "Principles for the Design of Practical Writing Systems", Anthropological Linguistics, 12 (7): 256–270 
  • Wheeler, Max W (1979), Phonology Of Catalan, Oxford: Blackwell 
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