The Curious Chronicle of the Letter C

The English language is infamously difficult in part because its spelling befuddles even native speakers as letters take on different sounds depending on what letters surround it. Few letters exemplify this trouble more than the third letter of the English alphabet: C. Think about these words: cease, coin, chic, indict, and discrepancy. In this string of terms, C sounds like S, K, Sh, and in one case it’s silent. Even within one word this letter doesn’t always maintain the same sound. Due in part to this phonetic flexibility, C is the 13th most frequently used letter in the alphabet.

Where did this adaptable letter come from? Like the letter G, C emerged from the Phoenician letter gimel (centuries later, gimel became the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet). In ancient Rome, as the Latin alphabet was being adapted from the Greek and Etruscan alphabets, G and C became disambiguated by adding a bar to the bottom end of the C. When Latin entered the British Isles, C was ripe for many interpretations and was imbued with the sounds of Old English, Welsh, and other Celtic languages. As loanwords like clique flowed into English from Norman French, the uses of the letter further expanded.

The fickle nature of this letter did not please everyone. As American English grew in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin campaigned to remove C from the alphabet altogether, though his efforts did not gain much traction.

Today, the letter C is commonly used as an abbreviation for the temperature scale Celsius and to stand for the word “century.” It is also the name of a computer programming language, C, developed by AT&T Bell Labs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This language is so named because it was based on a language called B (derived from BCPL, Basic Combined Programming Language), and C comes after B.

Stay tuned for our next installment in our history of the English alphabet.