What the Romans did to C and K

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What the Romans did to C and K

#1  Postby Delvo » Nov 21, 2010 5:26 pm

I've been wondering about the peculiarity that the letters C and G have different sounds depending on what comes next in pretty much every language using this alphabet, and why the only two consonants for which that's the case also happen to be descended from the same original letter. I found that I can only trace the answers as far back as a few centuries BC. At that point, we're only talking about what these letters now represent before A, O, U, or a consonant: a stop with the back of the tongue touching the back of the roof of the mouth, just vocal in G's case and not in C's case. That is the original sound in both cases, with the various sounds they now represent before E or I in different languages being derived later by letting the tongue slip forward as if in anticipation of the vowel.

The Romans had inherited the Greeks' gamma and kappa, although the way they drew gamma by this time looked like "C". No letter that looked like "G" existed yet, its sound is what the letter that looks like "C" represented. But the use of K was already getting less common or even essentially ended at that time, and its sound was left to be represented by C, even though it already had another sound to represent (the vocal counterpart to K's non-vocal sound). That makes sense if they didn't really think of them as two different sounds, like the famous L/R unity in Oriental phonetics and the trouble European languages' speakers often have with languages that distinguish between aspirated and non-aspirated stops. But it's clear that the Romans did have what they considered to be two different sounds, because they felt compelled to add another letter just to separate them again, which is why the G got invented: to take over the written representation of C's original sound because K's sound had invaded and taken over so much of the written use of the letter C.

So, G was the solution to the problem of C being stuck with two different sounds and no other written way to distinguish between them. But why create the problem in the first place? They already had two letters for those two sounds! All they needed to do was keep using both of them, as they already always had until then...
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#2  Postby RaspK » Nov 25, 2010 8:34 pm

Actually, the differences in sound in modern languages are considerably more modern derivatives; Latin was more coherent in terms of pronunciation of individual letters, though differing in dialects and so on (also, see Greek).
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#3  Postby Corneel » Nov 26, 2010 3:32 pm

Delvo wrote:I've been wondering about the peculiarity that the letters C and G have different sounds depending on what comes next in pretty much every language using this alphabet, <snip>

Pretty much every language? This only true for the romance languages, and to some extent for English which was heavily influenced by a romance language.

The Romans had inherited the Greeks' gamma and kappa, although the way they drew gamma by this time looked like "C". No letter that looked like "G" existed yet, its sound is what the letter that looks like "C" represented. But the use of K was already getting less common or even essentially ended at that time, and its sound was left to be represented by C, even though it already had another sound to represent (the vocal counterpart to K's non-vocal sound). That makes sense if they didn't really think of them as two different sounds, like the famous L/R unity in Oriental phonetics and the trouble European languages' speakers often have with languages that distinguish between aspirated and non-aspirated stops. But it's clear that the Romans did have what they considered to be two different sounds, because they felt compelled to add another letter just to separate them again, which is why the G got invented: to take over the written representation of C's original sound because K's sound had invaded and taken over so much of the written use of the letter C.


It's probably the Etruscans, through whom the Romans borrowed the Greek script, that didn't make that distinction.
The letter C was the western form of the Greek gamma, but it was used for the sounds /ɡ/ and /k/ alike, possibly under the influence of Etruscan, which lacked any voiced plosives. Later, probably during the 3rd century BC, the letter Z — unneeded to write Latin proper — was replaced with the new letter G, a C modified with a small vertical stroke, which took its place in the alphabet. From then on, G represented the voiced plosive /ɡ/, while C was generally reserved for the voiceless plosive /k/. The letter K was used only rarely, in a small number of words such as Kalendae, often interchangeably with C.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_alphabet#Origins
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#4  Postby Evolving » Nov 26, 2010 3:58 pm

Corneel wrote:Pretty much every language? This only true for the romance languages, and to some extent for English which was heavily influenced by a romance language.


It's also true for German - e.g. the place name Celle, the alternative spelling Cigarette (for the more usual Zigarette), etc; in all such cases the C is pronounced "ts" (like Z in German).

There are, of course, very few instances in German in the first place of a solitary C (as opposed to CK).
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#5  Postby RaspK » Nov 26, 2010 4:30 pm

Evolving wrote:
Corneel wrote:Pretty much every language? This only true for the romance languages, and to some extent for English which was heavily influenced by a romance language.

It's also true for German - e.g. the place name Celle, the alternative spelling Cigarette (for the more usual Zigarette), etc; in all such cases the C is pronounced "ts" (like Z in German).

There are, of course, very few instances in German in the first place of a solitary C (as opposed to CK).

Am I wrong to assume that, as the other member mentioned, these uses/formulations are also connected to any of the romance languages? For instance, Cigarette is from French, and there's also Sauce, and so on, but... ;)
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#6  Postby Evolving » Nov 26, 2010 4:48 pm

Cigarette: true.

Sauce is spelt Soße (= Sosse) in German.

Celle: clearly not (not according to this, anyway: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celle).

Celle is a bit of an anomaly - like Jesolo in Italy, although there isn't even supposed to be a letter J in Italian!

Other than Celle, I can't think of any authentically German word with a C that is pronounced as it is in "Celle" (as opposed to Coburg, for instance, which is pronounced as if it began with a K). Maybe Celle really is the only case.
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#7  Postby Corneel » Nov 27, 2010 7:51 am

Evolving wrote:
Corneel wrote:Pretty much every language? This only true for the romance languages, and to some extent for English which was heavily influenced by a romance language.


It's also true for German - e.g. the place name Celle, the alternative spelling Cigarette (for the more usual Zigarette), etc; in all such cases the C is pronounced "ts" (like Z in German).

There are, of course, very few instances in German in the first place of a solitary C (as opposed to CK).

There is that, plus of course that German mostly uses "K" for the sound represented by "C" in Latin, which clearly doesn't change pronunciation depending on what follows. Because of the redundancy C/K, it's better to look at "G".

And yes, loanwords might retain their spelling, in Dutch even moreso than in German, which is why we have "circus" and not "sirkus". However English is the only language I can think of where this also happens for common words not originally from Romance languages or Latin (mice, ice, lice,...) - probably because of large influence of Norman French.

And outside Romance & Germanic languages, I think "C" is never used for the k-sound, and "G" is almost always used for the sound as the "g" in "go", not the g in "huge", and pronunciation seldom, if ever, depends on the following sound. So, "the letters C and G have different sounds depending on what comes next in pretty much every language using this alphabet" is not even hyperbole, it's simply wrong. Unless you use a very strict definition of the Roman alphabet.
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#8  Postby Delvo » Nov 27, 2010 5:27 pm

Also consider the variations like CH and CC (and extra marks above or below the letter to indicate the same general type of change instead of the original K-sound). In German, for example, there are different ways to pronounce CH, although it's dictated more by the vowel before it than by the one after it. (The one associated with A/O/U is harsher and more in the back of the mouth/throat; the one associated with E/I is so much softer and farther forward that it can be mistaken for SCH.)

Anyway, although I was under the impression that it was also that way in other language groups, if it isn't, it isn't. But that's still not really relevant here. It's still common enough that it's what made me wonder about these letters in the first place, and, since I had already found the explanation for the differentiation based on adjacent vowels and was only using that as background for how I'd come to the question about something else that happened earlier, focusing on that is only a distraction from the actual point here.

The question is why, back before that vowel-based complication happened, the Romans mostly quit using K. Having already restricted Q to only a rather narrow scope of uses, they still had two letters left to represent two sounds; dropping one of those remaining letters (and, for that matter, not re-expanding the range of circumstances in which to use Q) put them in a situation of needing to invent another (G) because otherwise both sounds were crowded onto the same written letter (C). Why not keep using K?
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Re: What the Romans did to C and K

#9  Postby RaspK » Nov 27, 2010 10:20 pm

An interesting aspect (taking Greek into account here) is that kappa had a harsh sound, whereas the (later dropped) qoppa had a distinctively softer sound (think "quality").
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