Can you imagine a world in which the sounds of G and C were both represented by the letter C? Try to imacine it.
Believe it or not, for much of their history, the sounds of C and G were represented by the same symbol. Eventually, however, both sounds received their own differentiated symbols.
Both G and C have their origin in the Phoenician letter gimel, which meant “camel,” and looked something like an upside-down V (think of a camel’s hump—which, some believe may have been the inspiration for the letter’s shape). The Phonecians used gimel to indicate a sound that is equivalent to our present-day G (like the sound in “got”).
The Greeks borrowed gimel from the Phoenicians and renamed it gamma. Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks used the letter to represent the guttural G sound. When the Romans adopted gamma from the Greeks, however, they made a significant change.
Unlike the Greeks, the Romans used the letter gamma to indicate the sound of K (as in “compare) and the sound of G (as in “go”). Not only that, the Romans changed the shape of the letter, softening the sharp angle of the gamma to a curve. The resultant shape looked very similar to our modern English C.
But having one letter represent two very different sounds grew problematic. Ultimately, the Romans developed a graphic differentiation for the two sounds. The K sound remained with the C shape, while a bar was added to the bottom edge of the letter to indicate the G sound (as in “got”).
The result was the modern G. But how, you may be wondering, did C come to represent both the hard sound of K (as in “car”) and the sibilant sound of S (as in “publicity”)?
In 1066, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy (part of modern France), invaded and conquered England. He brought with him the French language, which became the lingua franca of the Royal Court, and the business classes. During this time, the English language absorbed many French words and French spellings.
The hybrid language that emerged was called Middle English, the language of the great poet Geoffrey Chaucer (author of “The Canterbury Tales”). It is believed that, during this period of language mixing, the letter C acquired its S sound, because of the many French words which use C in that way.
After spending much time sharing the same symbol, G and C came to be the two separate letters that we know them as today.
Could we go back to having only one letter represent both sounds?