C: the chameleon of the Latin script!
We’ve always known C as a bit of a special character — one that changes its sound depending on what comes after it. If you followed the bold letters, you can visualize the changing pronunciation. The letter C is a chameleon that changes color, although with the monochromatic Medium editor, the metaphor of changing color is not as vibrant as it could’ve been.
C is the third letter of the English alphabet (Latin or Roman script) and as per the popular reference Wikipedia:
When learning the alphabet, that’s what we are taught. It makes sense until we reach the 19th letter of the alphabet, S, whose pronunciation can overlap. That’s our first encounter with the protean lifestyle of the letter C; one that it lives up to.
As our knowledge of the English language grows, we understand that the si or cee pronunciation of the third letter, is actually not the most commonplace. In most cases, c is pronounced like a k, except before an e, i or y, when it sounds like an s! It may be obvious to some people but I struggle to see why the letter C (cee) sounds phonetically closer to s only in a minority of the cases.
Never mind. We move on…but only until H enters the picture which further alters the pronunciation to Ch.
C, K, S, Ch. Eventually we get the picture but only if we’re living in the realm of the English language. Like a chameleon, the species and habitats of the letter C are broad and diverse. Which means more changes are yet to come.
From Pinocchio to life
The world is very interconnected today. We inevitably come across terms from different languages. One such language is Italian whose words, through names of cities, people or food items in particular, have entered the common English vocabulary. This is where the letter C comes into its full form!
From citta to Pinocchio, Italian shows the versatility of the Letter C. For those keen, here is a great table of Italian pronunciations:
So if any of these words have entered English, we have to undertake up to 8 mental operations to determine the correct pronunciation so that we can look sophisticated enough to pronounce the term exactly like they do in Italy!
The Latin script has also been adopted by many languages. Interestingly, the inspiration for this post was a name written as Cansu. This is a Turkish name and belongs to a content producer whose expertise lies in making videos of — Hindi films (yes). More than an admiration for their knowledge of a very different country and language, I was struck by the pronunciation of that name. It sounds like Jon-so almost. The C sounds like a mixture of Ch and J. On further investigation, I found that it contains two parts: can + su. The first part is of Persian origin and originates from the word جان (jaan) which means life. The second part is Turkish (meaning water). If only J had been used instead of C, then the term Jan/Jaan could have been understood better by like 800 million+ Persian, Urdu and Hindi speakers, even if they read it in the Latin script!
Coming back to a language closer to English, Dutch, has similar variations:
- c is pronounced as in ‘seat’ when it is followed by e or i.
- c is pronounced as in ‘cool’ when it is followed by a, o, or u.
Maybe this is why there is an entire video on pronouncing Schiphol.
Dutch, English, Turkish, Italian and who knows how many more languages there are where the letter c adapts its pronunciation to its surroundings, in true chameleon-esque fashion!
Learning to un-see
Globalization and the widespread use of the Latin script mean that we have to interpret the letter c carefully, depending on its context. While the script “looks” the same, we have to learn to see and un-see, and repeatedly so. Of course, there are other letters apart from c, like j, g, z which can have different sounds! It can get a bit overwhelming, especially if one is following European sport where mispronouncing names of players, clubs and cities can lead to being dismissed as an ignoramus or “lightweight” newbie.
My question is why only C? Why does C always have to change? Also if it changes, why not just replace it with the s or k sound? Why can’t we move to phonetic spelling? That will make things so much simpler. It will reduce cognitive load and by doing so, make everyone sound smarter. Who would not want that?
Humans have moved (progressed or regressed — you can decide), from handwriting to typing to soft-keyboards. From two fingers to 10 finger touch-typing, we’re now back full-circle to soft-keyboards using one, or sometimes two fingers. The letter C usually resolves to s, k or ch. The first two already exist. If we move to phonetic spellings and change C to be Ch on the keyboard, then that can save many keystrokes. This will save time, which we can invest in other productive tasks, one of which will inevitably be saving the universe. Cause and effect cannot come greater than this. Of course Ctrl+Ch will not have the same ring to it as Ctrl+C but it’s a trade-off that we can live with. I can c̶e̶e̶ see many benefits.